Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu
MPAA Rating: (for some violence and sexuality)
Running Time: 1:49
Release Date: 3/27/15 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 26, 2015
One would not expect that a movie featuring a romance based on unbridled passion, jealousy that turns to insanity, accidental dismemberment, a throat-slicing maniac, and attempted toddler-murder could be so staid, but such is the case with Serena. This is a fitting reminder of one of Ebert's cardinal rules: It's not what a movie is about; it's how it is about it.
On the surface, Serena is a big, bold piece of period melodrama. There are the aforementioned plot points, but there is also the serene, lush landscape of the forested Smoky Mountains, against which all of the action unfolds. One must give credit where it is due, and from the movie's opening shot until its finale, it's apparent that director Susanne Bier has a keen eye for details. This is a beautifully shot and designed movie, with views of sweeping mountain vistas at sunset, unapologetically sparse depictions of the forests where the main characters' lumber enterprise goes about its daily work, and richly shadowed shots of lovers going through the less-than-ordinary progression of a relationship—from passion-filled sex to conspiratorial whispers about murder to sleepless nights of guilt and further murderous machinations.
Watching the movie is a strange experience. We're meant to be caught up in the decline of the souls of these characters, but we instead find ourselves noting how accurate the nearby town appears in relation to the movie's 1929-and-beyond setting and how lovely the trees look. Yes, the movie somehow makes it so that we'd rather ignore the figurative forest and focus on the literal trees.
Something has been lost here, rather it be in the translation of Christopher Kyle's screenplay from the book by Ron Rash or in a director who has ignored the emotion for the landscapes or in actors who aren't comfortable enough to commit to the grand gestures for which the material seems to be calling. Everyone appears to be sleepwalking through the production, either content with downplaying everything or uncertain of what to actually do. Maybe it's simply a byproduct of the crisp, Carolina air, which feels almost tangible in shots of mist rising from the leafy canopies of the woods, but there I go with the trees again.
The story centers on George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), a lumber baron who has suffered much loss in the stock market crash and could lose his business, and Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), a mysterious young woman who catches George's eye, heart, and, later, soul in her "beautiful, wounded" personality. This is the sort of story where the female character hints that she has a dark secret or 20 in her past but insists her life only really began when she met the man of her dreams. We're not supposed to laugh at that, and we're definitely supposed to be wondering about the unspoken secrets instead of how awkwardly bubbly Serena sounds when she says it.
We're also supposed to catch some glimpse of suspicion or doubt or blind affection or, well, something resembling any emotion in George's face as Serena's true nature starts to affect his own. Instead, Bier and her actors have decided to take the route of least insistence. We get plenty of close-ups of Cooper and Lawrence, who only offer blank stares from dead eyes. It's not that we don't know what they're thinking. It's that we're often left wondering if there's any thought going on behind those eyes. Add to the performances that both characters are wholly unsympathetic people destroying themselves and others, and it's just disheartening.
The complications, as they must, ensue. George's land is threatened by a government plan to open a national park. The local sheriff (Toby Jones) wants to catch George in some wrong-doing in order to speed up the government's plan, and there are plenty of workers who aren't happy with conditions and might be happy to cooperate with the law. George's right-hand man Buchanan (David Dencik) feels slighted by his boss' assertion that Serena is a business partner in addition to a wife. Galloway (Rhys Ifans), George's hunting guide (George is trying to hunt a panther for a trophy, which is certainly a Metaphor), becomes honor-bound to Serena after she saves his life. A local woman named Rachel (Ana Ularu) has just given birth, and George admits that the child is his.
This is potentially meaty material, and behind the lethargic momentum and lackadaisical performances, we can almost hear it crying out for someone involved to put some gusto into it. Instead, Serena simply details a series of acts of varying degrees of trouble and violence, without any relatable context in which they occur. Actually, it's little wonder that the trees are so interesting by comparison.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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