It not a good sign when a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—two of the hottest actors working today, previously starring in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”— is given a low profile release.
Suzanne Bier’s “Serena,” a period drama/romance/thriller, has been pretty much forgotten. After spending nearly two years in post production the picture was screened at the BFI Fest in 2014 and given a limited theatrical release in February 2015, expanding on March 20th. Having seen the finished product I can say it’s not a great film, especially considering the immense talent involved. The script by Christopher Kyle (based on the book by Ron Rash) is uneven and the picture fails in terms of being a romance. At the same time, “Serena” isn’t a total disaster. It’s well made, the leading performances are strong and there are other aspects of the narrative—besides the romance—that prove to be compelling enough to warrant a solo watch at least.
Taking place in the Smoky Mountains during 1929, the movie revolves around George Pemberton, (Bradley Cooper) an entrepreneur from the East coast who runs a timber company. One day he meets the beautiful, mysterious Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) who takes his breath away. I realize this is a cheesy phrase but that’s basically how it happens, which leads us to the movie’s biggest flaw. As a steamy romance “Serena” fails right from the start. George and Serena’s meet cute is rushed and unconvincing—before they have a chance to say two words to each other they’re already married and passionately making love. Bier fails to establish a solid romantic base between them early on, so there’s no real spark in the later romantic sequences either. In addition, Cooper and Lawrence are given terrible, cheesy dialogue to work with during these scenes: “Our love began the day we met,” or “I never thought I’d find you.”
Yet, I didn’t see their relationship as purely romantic, but one similar to Warren Beatty’s and Julie Christie’s in the western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”: two ambitious, individually minded people locked in a business relationship. When George takes Serena to live with him in the mountains, she isn’t a feeble stay at home housewife but an active member of the business. She supervises the logging camp, shows workers how to correctly saw a tree and immediately knows what to do when a worker has a serious accident. In other words, Serena settles into this harsh, male dominated frontier environment with ease. And I think part of George’s affection—and obsession-- towards her comes from a feeling of respect towards her strong-minded attitude. Naturally her position of power doesn’t sit well with everyone and this creates a tension between her and some of the other higher ups in the company. Tension that leads to some thrilling and enthralling sequences later on.
Speaking of the western film, the theme of civilization corrupting nature is prominently featured in “Serena.” At this point in time, the Smoky Mountains contain one of the last virgin forests, so the government wants to turn it into a national park-- a move that would mean no more logging. Much like McCabe, George is intelligent and self-motivated, intent on being a successful businessman whatever the cost. This notion is further emphasized through his reoccurring quest to hunt and kill a panther. There’s no real reason for him to do it other than because he simply can and the scarcity of the species makes him want to do it even more. In this regard, George has two obsessions: Serena and the desire to become successful by conquering the wilderness and having a monopoly on logging in the area. That being said, The Great Depression is going on and a major logging camp provides a number of jobs for local residents, a reality that further complicates this situation. In a time of great unemployment, what’s more important to people? Jobs or preserving a patch of land that could potentially yield thousands of dollars. It’s a fascinating point of tension, one I wish Bier and Kyle had pursued a little more.
Unfortunately, the picture keeps leaning on the passionate romance angle. Lawrence and Cooper continue to spout schmaltzy dialogue and George’s other love interest Rachel (Ana Uluru) is sadly one-dimensional. Normally, this wouldn’t be as big a problem but Rachel plays a rather important role in the film’s climax. Ultimately things take a “Fatal Attraction” like turn, which is exciting and certainly not expected but also doesn’t resonate as much as it should because the romantic connections aren’t completely there.
As usual, Cooper gives a solid performance; his charming everyman qualities practically make him blend in with the period surroundings. George doesn’t always do admirable things but Cooper infuses just enough likability and personality to make him compelling to follow. However Lawrence is the true acting stand out-- giving an intimate and nuanced performance that gets more complex. Serena is strong and intelligent, fully capable of surviving on her own. Though, she also shows moments of vulnerability and we eventually find out she’s still sorting through some emotional baggage brought on by a family tragedy years ago. As the movie goes on Serena becomes increasingly unpredictable and unstable, something that George fails to see.
Overall, “Serena” isn’t the disaster its turbulent production would lead you to think. It’s well made—Morten Soborg’s cinematography captures the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains, highlighting the various shades of brown and green of the vegetation and the bright orange sunsets peaking through clouded skies. Nonetheless, it’s not the great movie it could have been, making its low-key theatrical release not very surprising.