Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Reid, Rhys Ifans
Less like Deadwood, Serena is more like a dead weight. Susanne Bier originally shot this arduous Appalachian tale back in 2012, and then proceeded to spend the next 18 months wrestling with it in post-production. Based on the evidence provided, it was a fight she was unable to win.
Essentially, it’s a melodramatic mash-up of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman & Ax Men. Set in Depression-era North Carolina, we follow timber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) as he struggles to maintain the future of his empire. A labour that’s soon put under further strain once George falls in love with and marries the stunning and spirited Serena (Jennifer Lawrence).
Bier’s richly textured mise-en-scene initially makes it impossible to not be seduced by Serena. Morton Søborg conjures a beautiful and bewitching backdrop through his wide-scoped photography of the vast and striking Czech mountain ranges, forever shrouded in tendrils of mist, which double for the Carolinian scenery. Against this, Bier’s beguiling colour palette permeates her film with an atmosphere so immersive you can practically smell the wood smoke and feel the chill of the morning frost. John Söderqvist’s superb string score is haunting, instilling the environment with a tragic sense of loneliness that makes your spine shiver. And Signe Sejlund’s sublime costume design adds the integral authentic sheen.
Disappointingly though for a film so visually solid, Serena is a hollow experience. From the start, you get the sense that what we are being offered here is the abridged telling of Ron Rash’s popular novel.
Despite what the poster suggests this isn’t a love story, but a lumbering anthology of Depression-era issues such as greed, corruption and societal gender roles, all of which are still prevalent in the modern world. Unfortunately Bier, and her screenwriter Christopher Kyle, offers you no time to reflect upon that as the film develops because your focus is entirely taken up trying to keep abreast of the plot, which has more branches than one of the spiralling broad-leaf trees.
The dynamics of the narrative, such as the whirlwind romance between George and Serena, are all dealt with at a dizzyingly quick pace. No sooner have the pair met than they’re married, by way of a glossy moonlit sex scene, and back trying to battle the bureaucratic bigwigs intent on ruining George’s business. Indeed their romance is so laughably quick that even other characters are dumbfounded to discover they’ve married.
Both leads give as good as they have. As you would expect, Lawrence’s performance is a compelling one that’s stronger and more assured than the material deserves. Cooper however, struggles to make any sort of impact as the frustratingly inconsistent George. And around them both, a pantheon of fine performers including Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones attempt to inject the film with some gravitas, but all end up acting hammier than a hog roast.
Bier meanwhile, directs with little energy and interest in her characters and their story. And soon, as the drama becomes blander and the dialogue duller, the whole film crumbles in on itself. Wooden doesn’t even begin to describe it.