This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 BFI London Film Festival.
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, and rumors about the quality of the finished product 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 never decides 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-]