Serena is an almost incomprehensible mess that feels as though multiple directors, with vastly differing visions, were working on it concurrently.
Filmed in 2012, director Susanne Bier’s Serena is just now being quietly released in theaters with little publicity or fanfare. At first, it seems hard to believe that a film with this caliber of talent—an Oscar-winning director, stars Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper—could ever be delayed. However, upon seeing the final product, it’s easy to understand why several distribution companies rejected the film. Serena is an almost incomprehensible mess that feels as though multiple directors, with vastly differing visions, were working on it concurrently.
Based on a well-reviewed novel by Ron Rash, Serena is a Depression-era drama set in the North Carolina Mountains. George Pemberton (Cooper) is a self-made timber tycoon who falls in love with a woman named Serena (Lawrence). George brings Serena back to North Carolina, but she has no plans to be simply a wife and mother. Despite being a woman, Serena immediately begins helping George with his company, giving advice on ways to be more efficient and to minimize danger to the employees.
Unsurprisingly, Serena’s presence doesn’t sit well with everyone. But, George has bigger concerns on his mind. He and his business partner, Buchanan (David Dencik), have put their company up as collateral for a bank loan so they can buy property in South America. This dream is threatened by the local Sheriff (Toby Jones) who believes George to be in some shady dealings with local politicians. Worse, a woman from George’s past threatens to ruin his marriage to Serena and the well-being of his company.
At its core, Serena may have been decent had Bier first articulated to herself what type of film she was trying to make. The film starts as a very stark and cold drama about the struggles of businesses and individuals during the Great Depression. There is a drastic shift, though, when George meets Serena, the tone and look taking on an ethereal, Romeo & Juliet-like romanticism that dismisses any naturalistic leanings. The film continues to switch tone and style as the story progresses, alternating between drama, thriller and romance.
It’s difficult to tell what Bier intended when production began. According to reports, there were multiple editors working on the film and several “final” versions were cut for distributors. Maybe somewhere along the way Bier and her team became numb to the ludicrousness of the film itself and didn’t notice how uneven and confusing it would be to an audience seeing it for the first time.
Sadly, not even the terrific cast can save Serena. Lawrence’s character, at least what we see of her, makes no sense—her motivations and emotions contradict themselves scene to scene. Instead of a strong, compelling character, we get an unstable person whose motives seem ridiculous. Cooper really doesn’t have much of a character at all and so his performance can only be labeled as serviceable at best. Not even the great Toby Jones or Rhys Ifans can help make the film palatable. Ifans, especially, is wasted as George’s gruff employee who is simultaneously a game tracker, a timber expert, and a strange security guard for the company.
Maybe we’ll never know why Serena is such a terrible movie. The story, the director, the editing? Any or all of these could be the reason. Whatever the explanation, Serena is an awful film. | Matthew Newlin