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BFI London Film Festival Review: Susanne Bier’s Long-Delayed ‘Serena’ Starring Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper

BFI London Film Festival Review: Susanne Bier's Long-Delayed 'Serena' Starring Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper

Certain films pass into legend as famous disasters almost as soon as they hit theaters, sometimes even beforehand. “Cleopatra.” “Heaven’s Gate.” “Leonard Part 6.” “Waterworld.” In some of those cases, this lousy reputation was earned, and in others it wasn’t. The latest film to potentially join this hall of infamy appears to be “Serena.” An adaptation of Ron Rash’s acclaimed novel (Darren Aronofsky and Angelina Jolie were once linked to the project), the film is directed by Oscar-winner Susanne Bier and reteams Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, stars of award-winning successes “Silver-Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”

On paper, it looked like the stuff of festival galas and award prestige: a lavish costume drama with two of the hottest stars in the world and a director with a proven track record. The film was shot back in 2012, but then went quiet. Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto came, went, and came again with no sign of the film. Months passed without a U.S. distributor stepping up for the film, and rumors about the quality of the finished film started to fly. Eventually it began to see the light of day: a U.K. release date was announced for later this month, with Magnolia set to put it out in the U.S. early next year.

Could “Serena” really be as borderline-unreleasably bad as some were suggesting? The film made its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival tonight, and while it’s not an enormous disaster, it’s certainly a moderately-sized trainwreck.

We first meet George Pemberton (Cooper) on the logging operation he owns in Depression-era North Carolina. He’s hunting for a mythical panther said to lurk in the woods, aided by business partner and best friend Buchanan (David Dencik) and brooding woodsman Galloway (Rhys Ifans). He heads into the city to renegotiate his bank loan, and ends up bewitched by the mysterious Serena (Lawrence), who comes from a timber family and is the only survivor of a fire that killed the rest of her clan years earlier.

They’re swiftly married and return home, but trouble is still brewing. For one, a local woman (Ana Ularu) has borne George a love child. For another, the local sheriff (Toby Jones) is attempting to buy out the logging enterprise in order to build a national park on the land, and is looking into George’s bribery of local officials, possibly with the help of Buchanan. But Serena isn’t used to not getting what she wants, and brings out a new ruthlessness in her husband, one that could well lead to murder.

The film’s an unashamed old fashioned melodrama, one that should be familiar to fans of Bier’s previous work, which often traffics in the now-unfashionable genre. The film’s certainly the most visually lavish thing she’s made: Morten Soborg‘s photography is atmospherically beautiful, and there’s some impressive production design at work, with Prague cannily doubling for the Carolinas. That’s about the nicest thing we can say about the film.

The problems start with the casting. Some actors are entirely suited to period dramas, while others are more comfortable in contemporary fare. On the evidence of this film, Lawrence and Cooper seem to mostly be in the second category. We occasionally see the fire that made Lawrence an Oscar-winner at 22, but she’s most often atypically flat, at least in the early stages of the film, and this is certainly the least effective performance she’s given to date. Cooper is worse: he seems visibly uncomfortable, his character rarely getting to dig into the moral ambivalence that the actor plays best, and he suffers most when the dialogue gets ropey. Among the supporting cast, Dencik (best known for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “We Are The Best!“) fares the best, but Bier’s insistence on using mostly British and European actors (also including Sean Harris and Conleth Hill) results in a truly baffling array of accents, and a large quantity of very good actors stand around looking like they’d rather be anywhere else.

With material like this, who can blame them? It’s difficult to determine who’s to blame: Bier or “Alexander” scribe Christopher Kyle, who wrote this script. The latter’s dialogue certainly doesn’t trip off the tongue, but the numerous head-scratching plot developments (one scene involving a heavily pregnant Lawrence, an axe and the final fate of another character occurs hilariously out of the blue) presumably come from the source text. It’s certainly not a story that’s well told, but much of that comes down to the film’s rushed, halting conclusion.

It’s possible that, underneath this mess (running a little under two hours), there’s a version of “Serena” that at least makes more sense. As is, scenes and transitions are choppy and awkward, characters go underdeveloped or unmotivated (Ifans’ mysterious hunter is a particularly puzzling case), and story developments are sprung with little warning or are just poorly told to begin with. Perhaps there was post-production interference, but the finished film is borderline incompetent. On this evidence, Bier seems to have lost the ability to tell a story.

Then again, the film’s never quite sure what kind of story it’s telling. If Rash’s novel had to  come to the screen, it probably should have been helmed by someone who was going to embrace the bugnuts crazy plotting and potentially histrionic characters. But Bier’s much too tasteful (and seemingly too invested in the central relationship) to let the film off the chain, and so she can never decide if it’s a full-throated melodrama, a dark love story or some kind of bizarre period slasher. Instead, it’s just a mess, and one that never finds a reason to justify its own existence.

The film isn’t bad enough to be some kind of potential cult classic: it’s tedious, with even the stranger moments and plot developments failing to raise the pulse. “Serena” has been delayed long enough that no one involved is likely to be harmed too badly: after filming, the leads went on to reteam a third time, again to Oscar-nominated effect in “American Hustle” and have plenty more on the way, and Bier’s received better reviews for her more recent movie “A Second Chance.” But given the result, you can see why people might be keen to sweep this one under the rug. [D-]

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"It was always a dark, dark, love story. Never a mainstream film.” _ Susanne Bier
PS: READ the book. Serena by Ron Rash


All the review said that the actors are good. Here an example from Bradshaw at The Guardian "And Lawrence brings her A-game. She is passionate, impetuous and confident, with a tough determination to grab the brass ring that has been presented to her. I loved her insistence that the company must bring in an eagle to keep down the population of venomous snakes, which are endangering the workforce, and that only she can be allowed to train the eagle. It is a gloriously queenly, almost Tudor moment for Lawrence, who has a glimmer of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabethan hauteur. Serena had surrendered eagerly, almost ecstatically, to the socio-erotic excitement of getting a marriage proposal from a handsome, wealthy man, and then she dominates him sensually in their married life, spurring him to greater achievements, and inspiring ruthlessness against those who get in his way." her reviews are very good better than movie itself


lol, Carlos, you sound so bitter. Cooper and Lawrence have more than proved themselves as actors and she’s won every award in the book: Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG, you name it. This was a bad script and bad direction, it has nothing to do with the actors. Oops, I just realized the one award she doesn’t have, a Razzie for Worst Actress. We all know who has 2 of those.


The trailer looks terrible, bordering on camp. Cooper and Lawrence should stick with shopping mall movies, they’re out of their element. There are less and less young american actors that have any kind of intelligence or subtlety to their performances.


They only get the roles they’ve gotten because of their looks. Serena actually looks awful, flat out.


Funny…all the other critics seem to praise the actors but damn the script, direction. I’ll see the film, looking forward to it.


It’s sad the jealousy and immaturity people have because they don’t like a actor or actress even though they’ve only seen a couple of their films. Jennifer is only 24 have you forgotten that ? I can’t wait to see what she does in the future so she can shut some of you guys up because your annoying.


The reviewer destroyed his credibility with the cheap shot. Lawrence has excelled in a variety of films, but no actor can overcome poor writing.


I simply don’t get why anyone is impressed with Bradley Cooper. He seems a nice enough guy I suppose, but compared with so many other actors, like Michael Fassbender, or Gary Oldman, he’s strictly american cheese. Jennifer Lawrence has been painfully overrated – I can see her being the new Julia Roberts, girl-next-door, everywoman star, but she so far comes off quite limited as an actor, which works fine I guess for franchise blockbusters, but not so much in something that calls for some subtlety and depth. They should back off on the hype and allow her to develop naturally, but Hollywood always loves a cash cow.


All the other reviews I have read have been more positive regarding the actors. Didn’t think American Hustle was contemporary, and this seems in the same context as Winter’s Bone. Direction and script are always king.


As someone who has read the novel I was looking forward to the adaptation. But although I like Lawrence and Cooper in certain roles I just don’t think these roles were for them. Serena, in my mind, is more like a Charlize Theron type. You can sense that she has a dark side when she’s on screen. Lawrence is still very young and maybe can do better in period pieces if she plays someone more her age. As for Cooper’s character, he supposed to be a well-built man who is intimidating and greedy. Maybe someone like Tom Hardy would have been best. But I still am curious to see it. Maybe historical epic type movies aren’t Bier’s thing.


Both Cooper and Lawrence are worth of all the awards they’ve won and been nominated for. Too bad so many are jealous of them. Silver Lining Playbook holds up especially well during repeated watchings. The problems with Serena come from the script and the direction. Period dramas are one of the hardest genres to get funding for, which is why so few of them are made each year. You have to applaud their ambition if nothing else.

Jim Law

PS: I hate to say it, but this indicates that Lars Van Trier’s well-documented disdain for Bier may be based on more on chauvinism – he would have made something deranged and brilliant out of the source material.

Jim Law

This sounds as if Bier screwed up something very promising – shame…the stills I saw looked promising, and suggested something better. Bier seems to have wasted Lawrence in particular: contrary to what the previous poster says, she has a gift to inhabit characters (compare the utterly different roles she plays in Hunger Games and American Hustle) and give them fire, but she obviously hasn’t been directed to good effect here.


I have always felt these two are WAY overrated ! I have not seen either of them truly inhabit another character – I always see them trying to play another character. Neither are Oscar worthy in my opinion. Then Hollywood goes nuts and only hires a handful of actors to play in top films. Wise up Hollywood!

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