Directed by: Susanne Bier.
Written by: Christopher Kyle based on the book by Ron Rash.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Serena Pemberton), Bradley Cooper (George Pemberton), Rhys Ifans (Galloway), Toby Jones (Sheriff McDowell), Sean Harris (Campbell), Sam Reid (Vaughn), Blake Ritson (Lowenstein), Ana Ularu (Rachel), David Dencik (Buchanan).
It’s never a good sign when a movie is delayed more than once, and pushed out of not one but two different years. However, once in a while those oft-delayed movies end up being masterpieces – David Fincher's Zodiac, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Ken Lonergan's Margaret spring immediately to mind. More often than not however, being delayed that often is a sign that the movie has problems. I first heard about Susanne Biers Serena following Silver Linings Playbook – as the film reunited the two stars, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, of that film. There were even images from the film posted. But then the film just didn’t come out – it was expected in 2013, and didn’t come out. It was expected on the festival circuit this year, and didn’t get there either (it did, finally, play one this fall). Now it has been delayed in America until 2015 – where it will go VOD and hit theaters at the same time. Oddly, however, the film is getting a fairly wide release in Canada. I went, more out of curiosity than anything else. And now I know why the film was so often delayed – it’s quite simply an awful film.
Set in 1929, in Carolina, the film stars Cooper as George Pemberton – a would be timber baron. But with the recent stock market crash, and the fact that the government may reclaim his land and make it into a National Park, things are on uneasy ground. George has some land in Brazil he wants desperately to log – but he needs to make money first, so he`ll do whatever possible to make it work. One day, he meets Serena (Lawrence), the daughter of a timber baron herself, who had her entire family wiped out in a fire when she was only 12, and immediately falls in love. Serena is as smart as she is beautiful – and starts to change George's business for the better. But from the start, there is something not quite right about her. She doesn’t seem to mind the girl, Rachel (Ana Ularu) that George knocked up before they met (and who, now that she is pregnant, George is virtually ignoring) – but she eyes her uneasily anyway – especially once she herself becomes pregnant. When Georges partner (David Dencik) threatens to expose his corruption, Serena goes full Lady Macbeth with George – but feels no guilt, and tries to push things farther.
All of that probably sounds rather interesting – like if nothing else, Serena would be a good soap opera. The ingredients are certainly there for this to be that kind of film – but that isn’t the film that director Susanne Bier has made. She takes the material far too seriously – and directs her actors to underplay everything. This is a subdued movie to the point where it’s almost comatose. With all the violence, sex and melodrama on display you would think things would be directed at a fever pitch – that the actors may in fact be in danger of going over the top. The reality is the opposite. Lawrence, who is normally a firecracker in her roles, has never been this quiet. She is capable of being subtle – her best work to date remains Winters Bone, which is her quietest great performance – but her she seems to be sleepwalking through the role – even as it requires her to go pretty much insane. Cooper is even worse – he looks dead inside here, which is perhaps where his character ends up, but certainly isn’t where he begins. Rhys Ifans is horribly miscast as the violent, psychopathic badass in the movie – a role his easy, funny charm just isn’t built for.
The film does look beautiful – set in the Smoky Mountains, the films cinematography certainly makes the most of its location. But the film doesn’t work on a dramatic or thematic level. Is the film supposed to be a There Will Be Blood like commentary on capitalism? A Gone Girl like thriller (without the satire), about a man who doesn’t know just how damaged the woman he married is? And old fashioned soap opera? I honestly have no idea, and I don’t think Bier did either. Bier is a talented director – Brothers, After the Wedding and her first English language film, Things We Lost in the Fire, are proof of that. But she has somewhat gone off the rails since winning an Oscar for the mediocre In a Better World (for foreign language film). Along with last year’s not very funny or romantic, romantic comedy Love is All You Need, this is two major whiffs in a row for Bier. Let’s hope she recovers for her next film – because Serena is one of the worst films of the year.