Serena (2014) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for some violence and sexuality
Running Time: 109 min.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu, Sam Reid
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenplay: Christopher Kyle (based on the novel by Ron Rash)
Review published February 23, 2015
In an effort from Bradley Cooper (Guardians of the Galaxy, Limitless) to thoroughly confuse us this year, he appears in a lead role opposite Jennifer Lawrence (Mockingjay Part I, Days of Future Past), with whom he worked with in two successful years with Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and his role is in a script written by a man named Christopher Kyle in the same year in which he appears as Chris Kyle in American Sniper (his second American film in a year). In truth, Lawrence had been attached to the project first, then implored Cooper to join her, since they enjoyed their Silver Linings experience so much and it had just finished its wrap. Unfortunately for the 2012 project, problems with needing to be re-dubbed and other delays kept the film shelved for nearly two years, only to emerge on VOD shortly before a limited theatrical run in 2015.
Shot in the Czech Republic, the film is set in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina as it heads into the Great Depression, where we find a successful timber magnate named George Pemberton (Cooper) trying to continue to thrive amid controversy in an area slated for a national park. Things take a turn for the better when he takes on a bride in spitfire Serena from Colorado (Lawrence), who ends up being the most savvy business partner he's ever had. But she's not just controlling of the business, as she perpetually suggests to George to form a complete bond with her, which means that he can't be showing much loyalty to anyone else above her, which does make his other associates very leery about their continued prospects. With a zealous sheriff (Jones, The Winter Soldier) out to take down Pemberton for some shady dealings, and an illegitimate child he may be taking care of financially on the side with a former lover, George finds little room for secrets with a woman who doesn't think he should trust anyone but her from there on out.
Loosely adapted from the well-respected 2008 novel by Ron Rash, Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (In a Better World, After the Wedding) takes over from an initially attached Darren Aronofsky, who had planned on casting Angelina Jolie to star, but lucks out by having a red-hot duo in Lawrence and Cooper to sell it, especially as their team-ups have not only resulted in big box office success, but the films they appeared in also would earn multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Though the story contains thriller elements, with a touch here and there of noir, Bier mostly shoots the flick in a straightforward style that doesn't capitalize much on the bits that are meant to build to suspense, and the result is flat and without the requisite nail-biting chills required to deliver a powerhouse climax.
Though marketed as the kind of darker Americana story in the vein of a Cold Mountain, it's not hard to figure out how such a period story featuring two very appealing stars would have such a hard time out of the gate in finding a company to distribute it. It's a bitter pill of a film to market, then it's not exactly well cast, even though you have two leads who have become Oscar regulars over the last five years. Though they both turn in respectable performances, they still feel like celebs playing dress-up in a star vehicle more than they do the rustic characters they are meant to inhabit. Plus, old-fashioned melodramas aren't exactly in vogue in this day and age, no matter how racy the sex scenes may be; despite the evident chemistry between the two leads in other films, they fail to ignite the same sexy repartee here.
Though it's a handsome film, it does suffer as a story due to an imbalance of focus. The aforementioned sex scenes are somewhat needless, as they don't push much of the story forward, but, again, they add no intensity. Side character motivations seem to crop up as needed, with some of them shifting loyalty for reasons that aren't adequately spelled out in what we see on the screen, leaving the impression that chunks of the plot had been relegated to proverbial cutting room floor, or perhaps were never shot. There's even one character who does everything he does because he claims he was prophesied to do it -- how convenient -- and how stupid, given how he doesn't foresee so much that does end up happening.
Serena isn't so much a bad film as it is inert, which is a shame given the quality cast and Morten Soborg's (Valhalla Rising, Chernobyl Diaries) good cinematography throughout. Thrillers are a director's genre, and the more contemplative Bier shoots the film as if she's making a slow-burn dramatic romance, which could be fine, save for the fact that we never really feel much of a love between the two. They seem better as business partners than lovers of destiny. If you're wondering if there's a film out there that the immensely talented Lawrence can't save, you have a firm answer now.
©2015 Vince Leo