Film Review: Serena

by Carrie Kahn on March 27, 2015

‘Camp’ is the operative word in Bier’s tiresome logging camp melodrama

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper playing dress up in Serena.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper playing dress up.

Critically acclaimed Danish director Susanne Bier tries her hand at directing an American period piece with her newest film Serena, and, unfortunately, the result is a serious misstep, paling in comparison to her excellent, award-winning earlier films (In a Better World, After the Wedding, and Things We Lost in the Fire, among others). Based on a novel of the same name by Ron Rash, the picture stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in a troubled romance, and the fact that so much talent is wasted here is beyond disappointing.

Cooper and Lawrence have said in interviews that they wanted to work together again after enjoying appearing together in the well regarded Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Their collaboration here, however, lacks the shared chemistry and success of those pictures. Indeed, the entire production feels a bit like amateur community theater, and plays like an excuse for the actors to don some cool, old-timey costumes.

The highly soapy story concerns George Pemberton (Cooper), a successful timber company owner in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in the late 1920s, and his new bride, Serena (Lawrence). She’s a whip-smart, consummate outdoorswoman and survivor of a childhood trauma, and her presence at the logging camp upsets its masculine equilibrium. Plot elements include shady business dealings on Pemberton’s part (bribes, crooked politicians), a land dispute (the creation of the Smoky Mountains National Park is on the horizon), a former lover, an illegitimate child, a wife desperate for a baby, logging camp employees with shifting loyalties, and a Javert-like sheriff (Toby Jones, always excellent). Oh, and a quest to kill a panther. Naturally.

All this drama plays out as a heavy-handed mess, on a set that, for some reason, was built near Prague (yes, as in the Czech Republic) instead of in North Carolina. So much for veracity. The logging camp feels so artificial, in fact, that you half expect to see the craft services table and the actors’ trailers in the edges of the frame.

Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) proves she's a bad ass with an ax.

Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) proves she’s no delicate flower.

Cooper and Lawrence don’t fare much better than the scenery. Cooper starts the film with what at first sounds almost like a British accent, but which then sort of, kind of, morphs into a southern accent — maybe? He obviously couldn’t decide, either, since, by the picture’s end, there’s no trace left of whatever it was supposed to be. And Lawrence has a field day chewing the scenery; she’s Acting with a capital A, and, wow, is she ever going to prove it.

She imbues Serena with shades of every dramatic, wounded, conflicted (tough but tender, shrewd but sensitive, passionate but erratic) leading lady from Lady Macbeth to Scarlett O’Hara to Blanche DuBois (the silk slips help). The result is at least somewhat more satisfying than Cooper’s one note Pemberton, if not infinitely more campy. Lawrence certainly does look lovely, though, with her golden blonde, crimped ‘20s bob, and sure, you could lose yourself in the depths of Cooper’s inconceivably blue eyes, but, ultimately, these aren’t reasons enough to recommend this dull, overwrought, pretentious disaster.

And thus we have a Danish director’s attempt at an old-fashioned, American southern gothic melodrama, and Flannery O’Connor, she is not. Bier’s ending hits with such an obscenely glorious forceful metaphorical thud, though, that you can’t help but applaud the sheer audacity of her vision. Too bad there’s little else here that’s as impressive. Now go rent In a Better World.

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Serena opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco, the Landmark Piedmont Theater in Oakland, and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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