Going to see a movie which is unremittingly awful is never pleasant. However, watching a film with a brilliant start gradually smoulder and die is nothing less than excruciating. This was unfortunately what I experienced whilst watching Susanne Bier’s Serena, a film with so much promise: an intriguing concept, stunning actors and design, but marred by a muddled execution and some poor creative choices.
After a slightly choppy start, the film gets into its stride once reckless yet determined rancher George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) brings his new wife Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) back to his domain in North Carolina. Together, they set out to rule the ranch as equals (something which raises more than a few eyebrows in the harsh, male-dominated ranching community). But when Serena’s pregnancy turns to a miscarriage, the tragedy threatens to rip the newlyweds apart altogether.
The first two acts of the film, interweaving the Pembertons’ increasingly complex marriage with troubles in the logging business, are compelling to watch. The filmmakers captured the bleak atmosphere of North Carolina with misty, dream-like cinematography which is breathtakingly beautiful. Equally as stunning is Jennifer Lawrence, kitted out in stylish blouses and a blonde finger wave hairdo, who dominates the film as the ruthless title character. Serena is a woman who has been shaped by tragedy, with a steely core and an immense capacity for fiercely protective love. Ambitious yet fragile, Serena is responsible for importing an eagle to keep down the population of poisonous snakes, thereby protecting the ranch workers. There is something regal yet childish about her determination that she, and only she, would be the one to train the eagle.
But Jennifer Lawrence’s character, fascinating as she may be, is where the film runs into problems
Once Serena finds out that she can no longer have children, she descends into psychotic rage and attempts to murder the offspring of George’s pre-marital relationship. However, “descends” implies that there is a degree of character growth, whereas Serena actually turns from ruthless but real woman struggling to cope with the loss of her child to remorseless killer in the space of a few scenes. And once she does, the film rapidly and jarringly gears into hysteria, delivering a climax which is so overblown it’s almost laughable. Tonally, it’s as bizarre as watching a nuanced Hedda Gabbler switch into a Halloween-style slasher flick half way through the performance.
Perhaps that’s why this film has been on the shelf for two years (it was filmed pre-American Hustle and has languished in post-Development Hell ever since). Presumably, once they got to the edit room, they realised that they didn’t actually have the footage to create a consistent, or even plausible, story. It’s a shame, because there is so much to enjoy in the first two acts. Despite the unevenness of the character she’s playing, Lawrence is utterly convincing. It’s truly astounding to watch such a young actress portray such a complex character with so much conviction. The sequence where Serena loses her unborn baby is truly uncomfortable to watch; Lawrence is so convincing that you forget you’re watching an actress and not a real person.
It’s a shame that Lawrence (and the character) are saddled with such an uneven script: it feels rather like writer Christopher Kyle didn’t know how to resolve such a morally ambiguous yet passionately loyal woman, so he took the easy way out and made her go on a murder spree instead. Thus, we have the disconcerting effect of watching a rather lazy Fatal Attraction-style archetype patched onto a far more interesting character. I wouldn’t even have minded the ending as much, had Susanne Bier directed Serena as more unhinged at the beginning – at least then her actions would have made sense.
For a movie supposedly about passionate, all-consuming love, the chemistry between the leads was more fizzle than fireworks
Bradley Cooper as George Pemberton was generally lacklustre, and he spent significant portions of the film ambling about looking somewhat confused. To be fair to Cooper, he had much less to work with than Lawrence, but it was still far from his best performance. The supporting cast (which included Toby Jones and Rhys Ifans) was solid but not particularly special.
Serena isn’t the full-blown disaster some critics anticipated, but it’s far from an outright success. As the film progresses, it’s clear that this is a cheap thriller wrapped up in the clothing of an intimate, nuanced drama. Ron Rash’s novel, which the film adapts, was a Macbeth-style operatic melodrama about two almost unrepentantly awful people, whose ruthless ambitions lead to mutual destruction. In an attempt to make the main characters ‘relatable’, the filmmakers simultaneously change too much and not enough, leaving the characters and tone in a weird No Man’s Land of inconsistency.
It’s disappointing, because watching Serena is like seeing the ghost of what this film might have been. If the filmmakers had stuck to the integrity of the first half, Serena would be a strong contender for Best Film of the Year. As the film stands, it’s a compelling misfire which is more a curiosity than a satisfying viewing experience.