Beautifully Crafted Serena a Head-Scratching Failure
It’s hard to imagine a film more disappointing than Serena. It reunites Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for a third time post Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, those two, both directed by David O. Russell, garnering them Academy Award nominations, Lawrence winning Best Actress for the former. At the controls is Danish Oscar-winner Susanne Bier, the director known for features as intimate and as varied as In a Better World, After the Wedding and Brothers.
Taken all together, it’s hard to understand how the film, an adaptation of Ron Rash’s Depression-era novel, could ever go wrong. All the same, this movie is close to disastrous, and while production values are high and performances are strong, sitting through all 109 minutes is virtually impossible. Free of nuance, playing on melodramatic tropes that are close to insufferable, it’s all so illogically plotted all I could do by the end is wonder what went wrong.
Deep in the North Carolina mountains, George Pemberton (Cooper) is trying to build his logging business before the land he’s currently working overtime to clear is declared a National Park and ends up off limits. On a trip back east to secure additional funds from the bank he falls in love with beautiful, enigmatic horsewoman Serena (Lawrence) at first sight, bringing her back to help him oversee his fragile empire in the hopes they can make enough money to start life anew in South America. In all ways George treats his new wife as his equal, the young woman showing a head for the business and for leadership the men in the camp, including the secretive, lethally duplicitous overseer Galloway (Rhys Ifans), instantly respect.
There’s more. We’ve got a driven county sheriff (portrayed by Toby Jones with bulldogged pugnaciousness) out to prove George of corruption, a trusted accountant (a slithery David Dencik) duplicitously looking at all his options and unimaginable bits of chaos throwing the logging camp into disorder. There’s murder and madness, not to mention a child born out of wedlock, everything feeding a human opera of tragedy and excess that by all accounts has no end and will continue to build and build until everything fueling it is destroyed forever.
Having never read Rash’s source material, I cannot comment how faithful Christopher Kyle‘s (K-19: The Widowmaker) script ultimately is. What I can say is that, at least based on what Bier and her team of editors (multiple are credited) have cobbled together, it makes no sense whatsoever. What is it that George and Serena see in one another? Why do they marry so suddenly? What possesses him to let her run Lady Macbeth roughshod over him the moment she joins him in North Carolina? Why does she show signs of insecurity, jealousy and insanity long before misfortune strikes giving Serena good cause to be upset that her husband has fathered a child with another woman? What draws Galloway to his new boss (long before she actually saves his life) and makes him willing to slice throats for her no questions asked?
There are so many questions, none of which have any answers, they make all that transpires vexing to the point of annoyance. On top of that, Bier plays this at such a heightened pitch the melodrama goes past Douglas Sirk territory and ends up in a place of treacle-laden lunacy that almost has to be experienced to be believed it was even possible. It’s all downright exasperating, building to sequences of catastrophe, humiliation, anger, triumph and regret so absurd they’re downright upsetting.
Yet the performances, as already stated, are still strong, both Lawrence and Cooper once again showcasing a magnetic, ferociously appealing form of cinematic chemistry only movie stars of their caliber can ever seem to create. Additionally, from a purely technical standpoint the film looks and sounds astonishing, Johan Söderqvist‘s (Let the Right One In) score, Morten Søborg‘s (Chernobyl Diaries) cinematography and Richard Bridgland‘s (Fright Night) production design all extraordinary.
None of which makes the movie any good. I’m not even sure it makes it watchable. Bier seems completely lost trying to tie all of the numerous strands of this melodramatic mess together, nothing connecting in a way that can even partially be construed as satisfying. Like professional sports teams that fail to qualify for the playoffs let alone win the title even when all signs point to the contrary, on paper Serena looked like an award-worthy winner with the reality sadly being nothing remotely of the sort. As bad films go, this might be the most unlikely one I’ve seen in ages, its failure a total head-scratcher I can’t begin to be able to comprehend.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)