Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Toby Jones, Sam Reid, Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris
This may be the third time we've seen Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper paired onscreen, following the David O Russell directed double of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but Serena was shot back in early 2012, before either of Russell's films came our way. Originally slated to star Angelina Jolie, with Darren Aronofsky directing, Serena has had a troubled time getting to the screen. Danish director Susanne Bier took over the project when Aronofsky walked, and it's said that for various reasons it took as long as 18 months for her to deliver a final cut. Whether the version being released now is Bier's or not is unclear, but this is a movie that feels like it was chopped down from a significantly longer cut. To put it bluntly, Serena is a mess.
The movie is set in 1929 North Carolina, just as the effects of the Wall Street crash are beginning to adversely affect the US economy. Cooper is George Pemberton, a timber magnate who has had to resort to illegal methods in order to keep his business thriving. There's some mumbling about bribes, but it's all very vague, as is much of this film. While on vacation, he catches the eye of Serena (Lawrence), a young orphaned woman whose family died in a fire while she was a child. Pemberton introduces himself with the line, "We should be married," and following a quick montage of the pair rolling around, he arrives back in North Carolina with his new bride.
Unwilling to merely serve as Pemberton's arm ornament, Serena quickly establishes herself as a business partner, and an effective one at that. This draws the ire of Pemberton's number two, Buchanan (David Dencik, a Swedish character actor who struggles with a US accent here). It's implied that Buchanan wants to be Pemberton's partner in more than just a business sense, but this is but one of several subplots that feel under-developed in this cut.
For most of Serena's running time, we find ourselves trying to get a grasp on just what story Bier is telling here. With so many subplots at play, we can't fully invest in any of them. Is the movie about Serena's struggle to cope with the knowledge that she can't bear children? Is the focus instead on Pemberton's attempts to keep his business afloat? Or Pemberton's secret funding of the son he bore with a young local girl? And what's with Rhys Ifan's creepy tracker, who seems to share a psychic bond with Serena, who herself appears to have a supernatural way with beasts. Watching Serena is like waiting for your wife to settle on an outfit to wear, but in this case, none of them fit.
All of the aforementioned plot strands come together unconvincingly in the film's final act, when the movie becomes a postmodern riff on the 'Wicked Woman' pictures so beloved by Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. None of the characters' actions are remotely believable, however, and the movie seems to know it's outstayed its welcome, stumbling loudly to its conclusion like a scream queen chased through a field in high heels by an axe-wielding maniac.
It's impossible not to assume there's a far longer and much more comprehensive cut of Serena out there. Maybe it will be released later down the line and we'll then reassess Bier's film, which is visually one of the most striking of the year, but in its current form, Serena is simply a disaster.
By Eric Hillis