Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence brought such conviction to their nuanced relationships in their past successes, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” that it is hard to believe they can produce anything short of excellent. And Danish director Susanne Bier’s respectable work in the past (such as “Brothers” and “After the Wedding”) also may convince one that “Serena,” Bier’s most recent film starring Cooper and Lawrence, can’t be that bad.
But yes — it is that bad. It’s the kind of film that viewers hope to bury as soon as possible. The film, completed more than two years ago, would have served its actors and director better if it had never been released.
Based on a well-regarded 2008 novel by Ron Rash, “Serena” takes place in the Depression-era mountains of North Carolina. Here, timber tycoon George Pemberton (Cooper) becomes enchanted by the alluring Serena Shaw (Lawrence), an enigmatic blonde with a dark past. Viewers watch as their volatile relationship, catalyzed by corruption, tragedy, jealousy and murder, explodes. Unfortunately for Rachel (Ana Ularu), the servant girl who gives birth to George’s bastard kid, and various others, Serena descends into murderous histrionic madness and the film (literally) goes up in absurd melodramatic flames.
It becomes embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch two capable actors, who usually have resonating chemistry, deliver such dismal performances. Lawrence’s styling and wardrobe look right for the period, but she and Cooper seem as uncomfortable as the viewers are. Despite their previous collaborations together, the pair manages to have hardly any mutual attraction. Thus, the film places such emphasis on their passionate love for each other but provides nothing to convince the audience of its validity.
The characters, despite the actor’s best efforts, have no conviction or depth. Their emotions and decisions are confusing and not believable. Viewers are forced to ask many questions. Who is this weird mountain man? Why is he so dark and creepy and what is his significance beyond killing people whenever it’s most convenient to the plot? Side characters seem to have been integrated last-minute into the plot sloppily and superficially. You desperately want to sympathize and root for Rachel and her bastard child who are tormented by Serena, but her character has such little depth that it is difficult to do so. In fact, the few times she actually speaks on screen (despite her being an integral part of the plot), she comes off as annoying and unpleasant.
The characters, as well as the direction, are maddeningly inconsistent. Bier flip-flops between directing styles: In the first half of the film the camerawork is characterized by slow-motion romantic montages of people making passionate love by candlelight, and riding through lush forests on horseback. However, this old-fashioned style is soon lost as the narrative takes a turn toward the dismal and the film becomes dark and depressing, leaving the viewers lost and confused. With forced plot twists inflicted on the characters at every turn, neither the plot nor characters feel remotely genuine or organic.
Despite all of these shortcomings, the film is not un-viewable — just intensely unlikeable, riddled with two-dimensional characters who fail to elicit even a flicker of intrigue. Nonetheless, Lawrence comes out significantly better than Cooper. Whilst Cooper delivers a bland performance with surface-level characterization and emotion, Serena’s limited success lies in her strength as an uninhibited female force: She saddles up with the logging crew by day and slinks around elegantly in silk, close-fitting gowns by night. In the first half of the film she epitomizes female strength in the best regards, and then meets her demise as the plot subjects her to the annoying female stereotype of emotional instability.
Alongside Serena, the film’s scriptwriter, (Christopher Kyle) uses a unique threading of intriguing metaphors and allegories throughout the script to boost the film’s watch-ability. While these techniques emerge as shallow and as unconvincing as the film’s characters, they serve to redeem the film from being disregarded as a complete catastrophe. At one point, Bier cuts from a successful kill to Serena hungrily straddling George in their bedroom. Whilst this is far from the first time a piece of art draws a parallel between humans and animals, it adds an interesting dimension to the film, preventing the viewer from falling into a complete coma during the course of it.
Overall, it is clear that the film would barely be worth a thought, if not for its leading actors. If you have not yet seen this film, I would advise you to save your money and time by steering clear of it at all costs. If you are among the unfortunate few who were fooled by the promise of a new J-Law and B-Coop masterpiece featuring tension, violence with sizzling sex scenes, for the sake of all involved, let’s all try to move on and forget as I’m sure the actors have tried their best to do as well.