‘Serena’: A cautionary tale, both on and off the screen

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For Digital First Media

“Serena” is historical romance, set in North Carolina during the depths of the Depression. It reunites Bradley Cooper as the owner of a timber company and Jennifer Lawrence as his new wife. The two had previously played paramours in “Silver Linings Playbook.” Both also appeared in another David O. Russell vehicle, “American Hustle.” “Serena” is directed by Susanne Bier, who had previously helmed “After the Wedding” and the Oscar-winning “In a Better World.” On paper, it sounds like all these factors would portend a successful film.

“Serena” was shot between the two aforementioned Russell films. It was completed back in 2012. Thereafter, the film ended up posing an off-screen conundrum for 2929 Productions, which made the film. It mirrored the problems that confronted the film’s characters onscreen.

Initially, no distributor was interested in acquiring the property. So, the film sat on the shelf for years. Whenever that happens, it constitutes a red flag. Now, Magnolia Pictures, the distributor, is belatedly dumping “Serena” into a handful of scattered art house theaters. There were no associated press junkets or other promotional efforts in tandem with the film’s release. It hardly received the high visibility treatment that was afforded to “Hunger Games” or “American Sniper,” which had starred Lawrence and Cooper respectively. Now that it is has been released, “Serena” has been subjected to vitriolic critical attacks.

In this image released by Magnolia Pictures, Jennifer Lawrence appears in a scene from "Serena." (AP Photo/Magnolia Pictures, Larry D. Horricks)

In this image released by Magnolia Pictures, Jennifer Lawrence appears in a scene from “Serena.” (AP Photo/Magnolia Pictures, Larry D. Horricks)

So … just how bad is “Serena”? Admittedly, it is problem-riddled in several salient regards. However, it is far from being an unspeakably atrocious mess like “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” That 2002 Eddie Murphy vehicle generated unanticipated marketing woes for Warner Brothers. In addition to Murphy’s considerable marquee value, the film included the likes of Rosario Dawson, John Cleese, Pam Grier, Randy Quaid, Luis Guzmán, Burt Young, Peter Boyle, and Joe Pantoliano in the supporting cast. Despite this, the film was ultimately released without fanfare in late August, typically a dump zone for films in which the studio has abandoned all hope. It was almost universally assailed by the press.

Does “Serena” really deserve to be regarded with comparable disdain? I think not.

As “Serena” opens, the viewer is greeted with beautiful shots of clouds floating majestically above the pristine forests of the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. It is a gorgeous sight to behold. Throughout the film, the visual splendor of the setting is an ongoing delight.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a lumber baron, who hails from a privileged class background. His entrepreneurial success has enabled George to purchase a vast tract of land in Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest. However, the advent of the Depression has raised new, unforeseen challenges for George.

George is a no office drone. We see the well-built entrepreneur among his employees, swinging an axe with considerable impact.

Early on, we become early of the potentially lethal risks in logging . A huge, industrial winch swings wildly out of control and drops a log on the tracks. A hapless worker is splayed across the tracks, trapped underneath the wayward log. A self-propelled train car is headed towards him. Will he be crushed alive by it? George chases after the train car, swings his body onto it, then frantically turns a brake wheel. The train car stops inches away from the head of the trapped worker.  It is an expertly choreographed depiction of heroism in action.

Next, we see George at an upscale country club away from the logging operation. As he lollygags with his sister, she remonstrates him for not marrying a certain wealthy woman in whom George as not interest.   George watches a comely blonde equestrienne, Serena Shaw (Lawrence), as she gracefully show jumps her horse over a barrier. She then rides away into the forest.  Immediately smitten, George mounts his own horse and gallops after her. When George catches up with his object of desire, he announces, “I think we should be married.” That’s quite a pick up line, big boy.

Apparently, it proves persuasive.  When George returns to the logging operation, he has a new bride in tow. The two make a strikingly handsome, well-coiffed, well-dressed couple. Just for good measure, Serena hails from a logging family in Colorado and shares George’s passion for the timber industry. This augments the carnal passion that they obviously feel for one another.

George’s marriage triggers the jealousy of his effete, cravat-wearing business partner, Buchanan (David Dencik). Apparently, Buchanan has been entertaining homosexual fantasies about George. However, George has been blissfully oblivious to Buchanan’s longings.

Upon meeting Serena, Buchanan treats her dismissively. However, George immediately straightens him out. He insists that Serena is the equal of any man.

Later, we see Serena as she swings an axe with aplomb. She even corrects the practice of notching the trees too high, thereby gratuitously wasting potential lumber.  Paralleling the vignette where George saved a man’s life through his timely action, in a pivotal scene, Serena does likewise.

Looming ominously in the background is an ex-con, Galloway (an unrecognizable Rhys Ifans). He had previously been convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail. Now, he has been released, just in time to author some dark prophecies. Then, there is Rachel (Romanian actress, Ana Ularu), a hauntingly beautiful woman. She has had a baby out of wedlock. It happens to be George’s, but he won’t acknowledge it.

Complications arise, when legislation is proposed to create a national park in the Smokey Mountains. A conservation-minded local sheriff (Toby Jones) tries to rally support for the legislation. Of course, George recognizes that the creation of a preserve would be anathema to the agenda of his logging company. He is perfectly content to denude the beautiful forests of any remaining trees as long as he can turn a tidy profit in the process. George convinces his poorly-paid employees that they share his interest in opposing the national park. After all, it will only be a playground for affluent dilettantes. And where else will his employees ferret out a job?

A marriage that starts out with such promise is subverted by a series of unfortunate circumstances. It plunges the narrative into a sense of nihilistic despair.

“Serena” is hardly the unmitigated disaster that some detractors have contended. It features interestingly drawn characters and benefits from strong performances by both leads. Rhys Ifans is fascinating in a dark role. It is a far cry from his whimsical persona in films like, “Danny Deckchair.” Danish director, Susanne Bier, has suffused the film with a decided ethereality. At times, it recalls the abstractness of Lars von Trier, Bier’s countryman and mentor.

In addition, “Serena” benefits from eye-popping scenery (with the Czech Republic subbing for the Smokey Mountains). The area’s intrinsic beauty is expertly captured by cinematographer, Morten Soborg. A strong sense of periodicity is created by Susan Jacobs’ production design and Signe Sejlund’s costumery. The score by Johan Söderqvist is evocative.

Where did “Serena” go awry? The film is based on a novel of the same name by Ron Rash. It has been liberally adapted by Christopher Kyle. His résumé is tainted by the execrable screenplay for “Alexander.” The lead characters are greedy capitalists out of an Ayn Rand manifesto. The denouement in Rash’s tome is shrouded in vagueness. By contrast, Kyle provides the film version with an explicit ending. Arguably, the cinematic treatment of the novel required a mire definitive resolution than the book provided. However, Kyle’s screenplay concludes on a silly and counterintuitive note.

“Serena” has proven to be a huge disappointment, both artistically and commercially. Both the on-screen storyline and the off-screen difficulties offer a cautionary tale.

** ½ R (for some violence and sexuality) 109 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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