Serena is a film that tries to be many worthy things, that thinks it is all of these many worthy things, yet in the end becomes only those things that we initially see it for: superficially stunning but ultimately slight and frustrating. It tries to be a gritty tale of pioneer businessmen (and woman) eking out a living against the unclaimed, wild American frontier; a heartbreaking tale of love across class and city divides against a backdrop of inequality and distrust; a generational drama of money and property and an astute character study. That it never really becomes any of these things is no fault of anybody involved in the film really bar two. I’ll get to this later.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Ron Rash, until now an under-appreciated novelist and short story writer, a man known for his singular and romantic take on historical Americana. This comes with problems of its own, however, given the recent spate of very good and successful films showing us the historical and social roots of America, and quite often it’s seedier sides. And though Serena has designs on being bigger and telling more and being more telling than, say, Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace or David Gordon Green’s excellent Joe, it comes from a problematic place and lands in a problematic format. Ron Rash has neither the sense of outrage and melancholy that Cooper brought to Out Of The Furnace or that the brilliant Larry Brown brought to the original story which was the basis for Joe, nor does he have the overwhelming sense of a place and a people of Harry Crews, or the generational understanding of the era of say a Faulkner or a Steinbeck. In fact, amongst the recent films based on America’s past, the nearest we have to Serena is Lawless, based on The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant and brought to the screen by Nick Cave and John Hillcoat; which latter film is superior in every measurable way.
Set in North Carolina in the 1930s, in the immediate aftermath of the great crash, the film follows Bradley Cooper’s George Pemberton, owner of a successful and expanding logging and lumber business. He struggles against nature and, apparently, near indestructible panthers; his workers work long hours and so does he but they respect him and together they make a lot of money. The business grows and the business expands and this brings with it much trouble, and many challenges, some of which we see play out in a slow yet methodical manner, and some of which are hinted at and left annoyingly, tantalisingly off screen.
On one of his travels Pemberton meets Jennifer Lawrence’s Serena, a beautiful and, we learn, very headstrong and powerful woman. A whirlwind (even by Hollywood standards) romance carries them both away. Over the course of what seems like just 2 or 3 screen minutes, they are married, she is made a partner in the Pemberton business and the conflict between her as a powerful Californian woman and the rest of the workers at the camp (including a woefully miscast Rhys Ifans – though, to be fair, the role doesn’t really require very much other than a dirtied attempt at mystery from him) is set up very nicely indeed. Over the course of the next hour or so she and George make one ridiculously selfish and ill-considered decision after the next. Some of these decisions will have a huge bearing on how their business and their relationship (and our understanding of them) will develop, some some of them will just disappear.
Throughout all of the melodrama that plays out, as Serena becomes more and more convinced that power and control are slowly slipping away from her and she attempts more and more brutally to retain them, we learn that part of her aggression and bitterness stems from the fact that she is not able to bear George a child (a feat another woman has accomplished with some success, and much to Serena’s chagrin) and this leads her down a path of action from which there is no possible hope of return.
This film looks fantastic. Partly this is down to the startlingly beautiful Czech locations (why the beautiful North Carolina countryside couldn’t stand in for the beautiful North Carolina countryside is beyond me. This fact alone would prevent the film from ever really being anything more than Hollywood sheen.) and partly it is down to a very good looking young cast. In addition to the fantastic setting, Susanne Bier has a wonderful eye, and a knack for effective and sly juxtapositions on screen that deepen the drama (the earthy palette of the film for instance, or the pacing that lends the visuals a languid beauty and the narrative a creeping menace) and there is some fantastic work by Danish cinematographer Morten Soborg. Serena oozes atmosphere. The costumes are fantastic and perfectly fitted to both the actors and the period. The mud is muddy and the labour looks hard; stern government men deal stern government deals and when men shout, words have meaning. The creation of the camp amongst the trees as a living set adds immensely to the feeling of work and danger.
Serena was shot in 2012, having originally been in the hands of Darren Aronofsky and Angelina Jolie before being passed on to Bier. For Lawrence and Cooper, Serena was squeezed in between Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, both award winning films. The fact that Serena took so long to complete is the reason it was released after these two, and perhaps it is one trip to the Lawrence/Cooper well too many.
Jennifer Lawrence seems to sleepwalk her way through Serena; she looks the part, with her platinum blonde 1930s hairdo and her entitled dress and gait, it just doesn’t seem to bother her too much. She has the same look on her face falling in love with Pemberton as she does showing the men how eagles are useful in the camp, as she does telling the men how much of Pemberton’s power she wields at the camp, as she does at rest in a nightgown…you get the idea. It is only in the latter stages of the narrative that Lawrence finds the drama to really sink her teeth into, though at this point she seems to overcompensate, making up for her torpor during the first 60-70 minutes, and consequently her performance doesn’t improve, it merely seems all the more unbalanced. In the end her performance is not her character, and this rather jarring. What we are told about Serena and what see from those around her is just not present in the Serena that Lawrence gives us. Perhaps Winter’s Bone was a fluke? Or perhaps such naturalism was called for in the part that no real acting was necessary? Or perhaps, and more likely, the film was just so good we didn’t really notice.
Bradley Cooper is a fantastic actor. Over the years he has proved to be versatile and believable, possessed of that rare trait of never really changing his appearance but looking different as every character he embodies. He is both good looking and characterful, an unusual combination in modern film. Having said that, his performance as George Pemberton is not a bad performance at all, it’s just not the right performance. The Pemberton of the novel of Serena is strong (mentally and physically), driven, intelligent and tragic. Cooper’s Pemberton kind of stumbles through his travails with a look somewhere between loveable and gormless. He is a man put upon by his surroundings and falling victim at every turn to the machinations of his workers, his wife and his government. Cooper isn’t even really miscast, he just appears to be reading from a different script. And even though it’s not essential that the Pembertons of the novel and the film be identical, it is essential that they conform to the interior cohesion of the narratives in which they function – Cooper’s just doesn’t. In the end it is just Cooper, not Pemberton. Oh, and the panthers.
Always the blasted panthers. What could have been a subtle and well-worked metaphor about the nature of hunting and the taming of nature is, in practice, forced and artificial, its power lessened each time the animals are shoehorned into the narrative. The role they play in the denouement, which could have been startling and tragic is, in the end, telegraphed far too early and almost comedic in its execution.
Perhaps it is seeing Cooper and Lawrence together yet again that takes something away from the force of Serena, or perhaps it is the fact that the film seems more than willing to blunt its own edges in taking its time, or perhaps even it is the fact that all of the glorious visual style of Serena is in service of a film that doesn’t want or require it. Perhaps it is all of these things; and despite all of the very many wonderful things that Serena does right, it never quite becomes the sweeping epic it so clearly wants to be…or that indeed, given its provenance and talent, it should be.
Serena then is not a bad film, not by any means, it is just oddly out of place, with its time and with its material; it is a beautiful piece of work scuppered by its own desire to use big Hollywood names when ones that inhabit and live the material would serve it so much better.
The extras on the disc are the usual mini-gallery of featurettes which function only really as a collective slap on the back. Each is supposedly about a different aspect of the film and involves one or more the cast fawning over the person responsible. And though it’s nice to see behind-the-scenes footage, in this instance perhaps a more straightforward making-of would have served those involved better.
Director: Susanne Bier
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence