Film Review: ‘Serena’

serena-jennifer-lawrence-bradley-cooper-image

Reuniting Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Susanne Bier's long-shelved period piece is a compellingly problematic anti-romance.

How do you solve a problem like “Serena”? That, at least, is the question industry watchers have been asking about Danish helmer Susanne Bier’s mysteriously withheld American feature — which, despite wrapping in 2012 with the enticing star duo of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, has sat on the shelf ever since. With the film finally out in the open, the question is no easier to answer: An arrestingly nihilistic Depression melodrama, marked by courageous performances and exquisite production values, this story of a timber-industry power couple undone by financial and personal corruption nonetheless boasts neither a narrative impetus nor a perceptible objective. The result is both problematic and fascinating, an unsympathetic spiral of human tragedy that plays a little like a hand-me-down folk ballad put to film. It’s not hard to see why a U.S. distributor has been slow to step forward.

Magnolia Pictures, sister outfit of the pic’s production company 2929, will ultimately release “Serena” Stateside in 2015, while Blighty auds will get to see it later this month, hot on the heels of its London festival premiere. Marketing for the film is already positioning it as a throwback romance in the “Cold Mountain” vein, with understandably heavy emphasis on Lawrence and Cooper looking scrumptious in Signe Sejlund’s impeccable period costumes, but it won’t take long for word to spread that Bier’s film is a far pricklier property than outward appearances might suggest.

Not that Ron Rash’s acclaimed 2008 novel, rather liberally adapted by “Alexander” scribe Christopher Kyle, promised anything else. Though the film’s silly, thriller-ized denouement lends events a cleaner sense of resolution than Rash’s more opaque outcome, it remains a work of near-operatic pessimism, its consistent preoccupation with basest human behavior obscuring any rooting interest in the events onscreen. As a study in mutually destructive marital abrasion, “Serena” boasts no less bleak a worldview than David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” with which it would unexpectedly form a canny double bill. (“The only thing that frightens me is the thought that you don’t trust me,” says one spouse to another here — a line that could have been penned by Gillian Flynn herself.)

“Serena’s” chilly, repeatedly self-severing storytelling is arguably more avant-garde than the plushly appointed star vehicle that surrounds it, though it’s hard to gauge the film’s own awareness of that disconnect. The first encounter between logging baron George Pemberton (Cooper) and Lawrence’s feisty title character is a case in point: They meet on horseback, the wind caressing their respective tresses, and his opening line is, “I think we should be married.” It’s either an instant of heightened romantic fantasy or a bitter parody of such a Hollywood-fostered ideal; Bier’s typically measured, tasteful direction doesn’t let on which.

Either way, it’s just a couple of swift cuts before the two are indeed married, and George brings his not-quite-blushing Colorado bride to his muddy lumber empire in the North Carolina mountains. His colleagues are less than welcoming, and not just because the outdoorsy, relentlessly capable Serena takes a more active role in her husband’s business affairs than was generally expected of American women in 1929. George’s chief advisor Buchanan (David Dencik), who supposedly harbors homosexual feelings for his boss signaled less by the script than by his collection of densely patterned cravats, is particularly resentful of her intrusion. Meanwhile, George’s destitute ex-lover, Rachel (striking Romanian actress Ana Ularu), is pregnant with his child, though Serena is unfazed: “Nothing that happened before even exists,” she says, as Lawrence’s bemusedly hard gaze betrays the first hint of the femme fatale within.

Her denial proves over-optimistic, however, as internal and external pressures conspire to end their steamily wedded bliss: Tipped off by the resentful Buchanan, local sheriff and conservationist McDowell (Toby Jones) closes in on George’s crooked financial dealings, determined to close down the lumber practice. The newly pregnant Serena, meanwhile, is suspicious of her husband’s gestures of support toward Rachel.

After an exceedingly slow-burning 45 minutes, an abrupt murder kicks the proceedings into the kind of high melodramatic key for which Bier is known, as Serena’s mental state rapidly deteriorates following a miscarriage, setting in motion a chain of dubiously motivated acts of malice. A finale that integrates arson, animal attacks and a three-way manhunt is far more high-flown than that of the source novel, though there’s something brazen about its stubborn resistance to conventional moral redemption. Bier’s Danish-language work, usually structurally and emotionally cohesive to a fault, has rarely been this compellingly untidy.

In the wake of her two collaborations with David O. Russell — for context, “Serena” was filmed between them — auds should no longer be surprised by Lawrence’s preternatural poise and inventiveness in roles for which she seems improbably, or at least prematurely, cast. While her fierce, heels-dug-in screen presence can’t make sense of Serena’s all-too-sudden descent into madness, hers is still a performance of agile, angular daring, often toggling sweetheart and vixen personae in the space of a single scowl.

The Stanwyck comparisons lavished upon Lawrence’s Oscar-winning work in “Silver Linings Playbook” resurface here; she certainly looks every inch the Golden Age siren with her crimped vanilla locks and array of creamy silken sheaths that, true to vintage Hollywood form, never seem to get sullied in the wild. The star also makes good on her proven chemistry with Cooper, who acquits himself with stoic intelligence and a variable regional accent in an inscrutable role that, for its occasional flourishes of Clark Gable bravado, is equal parts hero, anti-hero and patsy.

Nothing is more consistent in “Serena” than Morten Soborg’s tangibly autumnal widescreen lensing, its soaked-timber palette and swirling, expansive skyscapes going to dedicated lengths to beautify these ugly goings-on. (The unspoiled South, as is so often the case these days, is convincingly played by the Czech Republic.) The film’s spot-on costuming and production design, meanwhile, collaborate to make the title character a rarely plumed bird in this ravishly drab landscape — not unlike the symbolically pointed trained eagle she imports from Colorado — while George and his tweedy cohorts are practically camouflage-clad.

Film Review: 'Serena'

Reviewed at Dolby Screening Rooms, London, Oct. 9, 2014. (In London Film Festival — Love.) Running time: 109 MIN.

Production

A Magnolia Pictures (in U.S.)/Studiocanal (in U.K.) release of a 2929 Prods. presentation of a Nick Wechsler, Chockstone Pictures production in association with Anton Capital Entertainment. Produced by Nick Wechsler, Susanne Bier, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz, Todd Wagner, Ron Halpern, Ben Cosgrove. Executive producers, Peter McAleese, Mark Cuban, Oliver Courson. Co-producer, Sirena Film.

Crew

Directed by Susanne Bier. Screenplay, Christopher Kyle, based on the novel by Ron Rash. Camera (color, widescreen), Morten Soborg; editors, Mat Newman, Pernille Bech Christensen; music, Johan Soderqvist; music supervisor, Susan Jacobs; production designer, Richard Bridgland; art director, Martin Kurel; set decorators, Graham Purdy, Bara Bucharova; costume designer, Signe Sejlund; sound (Dolby Digital), Tomas Belohradsky; supervising sound editor, Anne Jensen; re-recording mixers, Eddie Simonsen, Jensen; visual effects supervisor, Tim Stevenson; visual effects, Mokko Studio; stunt coordinator, Pavel Bezdek; assistant director, Raymond Kirk; second unit director, Sean O'Dell; second unit camera, Jiri Malek; casting, Jina Jay.

With

Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu, Sam Reid, Conleth Hill, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge, Christian McKay, Philip Zanden, Ned Dennehy.

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  1. fdsa says:

    I saw it at the London premier and it was horrible. So many inaccuracies. So many cliches. So many “why’s.” Seriously, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence ride horses into the forest and when they met he say “I’m going to marry you.” Flash forward one naked bathtub scene and they get married. Yea sure. So much exposition, I thought I was watching a live reading. What a horrible waste of film funding…

  2. Elle says:

    I was sincerely disappointed in this movie. I read the book so I did have an idea of what the story would or should be. However, this adaptation of the book seems as if the book was used as an idea. The dramatic license taken with this story, reduced this to a shallow story of a woman named Serena that has nothing to do with the Novel Serena by Ron Rash.

  3. Lucy says:

    This is a great movie in every way! It seems someone was trying to sabotage the great work of the Danish director. Acting par a Bergman film. Beauty of “Gone with the Wind”. The suspense of “the Godfather”. This movie has everything. It’s destined to be classic!

  4. Jeri Gray says:

    I despise this movie because it completely guts a truly chilling book with finely drawn evil characters and ends up being a predictable Hollywood piece of boring melodrama. In addition the sound is so awful you miss every other word. Bet Mark Cuban regrets his involvement.

  5. Bevin Chu says:

    It is easy to get on a high horse, adopt a “higher standards than thou” attitude, and condemn a film such as “Serena” as utterly worthless.
    But is “Serena” really that bad?
    I for one don’t think so. Serena is something of a throwback to film noir, with Jennifer Lawrence standing in for Lana Turner, and Bradley Cooper for John Garfield.
    At the very least, it has superb production values.
    Actually that does not do it justice. It is also very tightly plotted, with a dark ending that is fully earned.
    I suspect with time, it might acquire greater cachet, and be cited as “underrated”.
    The stars, Lawrence and Cooper certainly did not consider the project beneath them, and I think their decision to take it one was not mistaken.

  6. Rarely seeen more unmotivated actions, either the script was already messed up or they edited it to death.
    ” It’s not hard to see why a U.S. distributor has been slow to step forward.” is the nicest summary….

  7. Julian says:

    Mr. Lodge, who I respect, is kind almost to a fault. To call this film “problematic” is an understatement. I’ve been waiting for “Serena” for quite a while (I loved Bier’s danish film, “Brothers”) but Serena is a turgid mess, a melodramatic, nonsensical bit of retro conceit, that doesn’t even have the benefit of camp. Cooper is dreadful in the film and Jennifer Lawrence jumps from being vacant, as opposed to being subtle, to outright overacting hysterics, I found her completely unconvincing in this part. Bier should have offered some direction to the actors (at least able direction) and she should have done a lot of other things when it came to this film. No wonder it was struggling for a distributor for so long. I was hoping that I wouldn’t be this disappointed, but I feel it brings in to question the artistic judgement of all involved. The film is somewhat of a deformed mutation , but what it was attempting to evolve into is difficult to discern.

  8. Cress says:

    So Serena has a miscarriage and goes mad? Thanks so much for these spoilers, idiots.

  9. WhoAmI says:

    There are 312 new nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and 2 videos that she was completely stoned and drunk. Hacking is wrong and a felony but NOT SEX CRIME, but her behavior and hobby are very disturbing.

  10. Broadwayfan says:

    Jennifer and Bradley are the modern June Allison and Jimmy Stewart! They do great work together.

  11. lojayne says:

    so you mean its a “meeh” kind of movie and it would be nice to rent it in couple more years on a saturday night, and why the zero focus on bradly cooper performance you gave him like 2 lines

  12. Guest says:

    The name of the DOP is Morten Søborg, not Morton Sorborg.

    • guylodge says:

      Thanks for the correction. Because there were no credits at the screening attended, I was reliant on the press notes, where his name was incorrectly spelled.

  13. Bo says:

    In my opinion, Bier is one of our most intelligent and talented filmmaker. Whatever the problems, I’ve been waiting to see this film of hers. I remember an interview a while back where she did say that it is a very dark movie. I know the book sure was.

  14. Joyce Tyler says:

    See, now, to me, this looks good. Although I would’ve preferred it if they were speaking Danish (with English subtitles).

  15. Jill says:

    I was about to correct the same thing Lauri. You beat me to it!

  16. Lauri Maerov says:

    The author of the novel is Ron Rash, not Bob Rash.

  17. TIm says:

    How could Bier screw up this dynamic duo?

    • Ken says:

      The history of cinema has shown that no filmmaking artist is infallible. Still, given that this picture is based on an obtuse difficult-to-translate novel, directed by a Dane, and shot in eastern Europe, it sounds like it could be absorbing and worthwhile…dross and all. I’m looking forward to it.

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