A suspiciously compromised film, Serena is an odd entry in the Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence group of films that doesn’t totally work. Ryan Pollard gives us the good and the bad…
Susanne Bier’s long-awaited adaptation of Ron Rash’s much-acclaimed Smokey Mountains novel Serena is a ripe and romantic melodrama set in Depression-era North Carolina and is about an ambitious timber baron (Bradley Cooper) who ends up meeting and marrying a woman he falls in love with (Jennifer Lawrence). Together, they have this completely overpowering relationship where she is actually much stronger than he is, proving herself to be the master over both horses and men, whilst he seems to be a slightly feeble character. However, over the course of the film, she effectively starts to turn into Lady Macbeth, and between them, they end up falling into a strange, barren form of derangement. A number of incidental characters come into play, all of which are played by a very fine supporting cast, of whom you see suspiciously very little of.
Serena is an odd widget of a film, and Susanne Bier has been very tight-lipped about the film and doesn’t seem to have been involved with the film’s publicity and marketing campaign. There were apparently a number of scenes shot that ended up not making the final cut, even though that always happens in film production, but when they made the film, it must have had a more communal sense to it than what was shown in the final product. There must’ve been more interaction and involvement with the community around the two central characters, but as a result of both Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper becoming Hollywood’s hottest couple as a result of both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, the whole thing seems to be drawn down and constrained to just their characters. So, as a result, everyone else ends up getting oddly sidelined: the always-excellent Toby Jones is there but not as much as you’d like him to be, and Ryhs Ifans’s enigmatic character who ends up being violently bonded to Lawrence’s Serena features very little. All this suggests that there is a much more broader and expansive film that is more rooted within the landscape (even though it’s all shot within the Czech Republic) and backstory that is hardwired in Ron Rash’s novel.
So, what you end up with now is a generic melodrama full of ripe romance that’s been oddly compromised. On the good front, Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely terrific as always, and she plays that part extremely well, playing the character of Serena as a single-minded woman who ends up falling into a Lady Macbeth-style derangement and insanity. She’s effectively the master manipulator and the equal of anyone, and Lawrence certainly gives an alluring siren-like performance. On the flipside from Bradley Cooper’s point of view, his performance is strangely bland when compared to Lawrence’s and he seems to lack the dirt and grit beneath his fingernails. It’s an oddly sqeaky-clean looking performance when compared to his edgier and harder performances in Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper, and there is a slight imbalance in the central relationship where you believe Lawrence’s siren-like allure yet Cooper has a strange love/hate connection to an elusive panther – What the…?
Morten Søborg’s cinematography is breath-taking, haunting and provocative, perfectly capturing both the landscape and the actors’ faces, but the soundtrack is unfortunately bland and leaves you longing for the southern banjos and rhythms that perfectly set and captured the atmosphere and tone in Winter’s Bone, which catapulted Lawrence’s career. There’s a lot of stuff that has gone into the film, but when watching it, you get the feeling that it has been reined in in order to sell it as another big Lawrence-Cooper film, and you do get that from looking at the marketing campaign. The film had been languishing in post-production limbo for ages as Bier spent the good part of 18 months in the editing room trying to rework and arrange it with unsurprisingly conflicted results.
So, in terms of what has or hasn’t been changed in production, and this purely speculative since Bier has remained quiet on what has happened in those 18 months, the film seems to be awkwardly convoluted, yet still admirable for what it gets right. The cinematography is brilliant, the supporting cast are terrific even if they are suspiciously underused, and Jennifer Lawrence elevates the film and gives a performance full of fierce, razor-sharp intensity. However, Bradley Cooper is not as convincing, the soundtrack is flat and generic, and ultimately, the whole film has an air of something that has been oddly compromised, yet it’s hard to tell what the film would have actually been like had it just run its normal course.
Written by Ryan Pollard
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Written by: Christopher Kyle
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper
Genre: Period Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
Serena is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK Feb 23rd 2015.