On the surface, Serena has a great deal going for it, not least the teaming of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, two of Hollywood's biggest and most-talented young stars. Made in 2012, after Silver Linings Playbook but before American Hustle, Serena languished without release, until its appearance at the London Film Festival, which also featured director Susanne Biel's smaller, but more powerful, Danish film A Second Chance. It came and went quickly in cinemas, but now its release this week on DVD might prompt some catching up and indeed re-evaluation.
Cooper plays George Pemberton, whose logging business in North Carolina is threatened by a mortgage foreclosure, and by local efforts to convert much of his timber land into a national park. On a trip home to New York to extend his loans, he meets Serena, an independent spirit he woos, weds and brings back with him to the logging camp, where he learns he's fathered a son by the cook Rachel (the talented Romanian actress Ala Ularu). Serena at first wins the camp over, not least by importing an eagle to kill the snakes which bedevil the loggers, she also loses her child. And when she learns she cannot have another, her jealousy descends like a cloud over Pemberton, Rachel and the son he tries to ignore, but can't bring himself to do so totally.
Based on a novel (which I haven't read) by Ron Rash, Serena seems pitched as a cross between There Will Be Blood (itself based on Upton Sinclair's Oil) and A Place In The Sun (based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, as was Josef Von Sternberg's film of the same title and many other films,including Woody Allen's Point Break). It's very old fashioned in its morals, its class restrictions, and in the beating down of Serena's proto-feminism. The parallels between the star couple's personal crises and the business problems should reinforce each other.
At times Biel seems to be trying to channel George Stevens, who directed A Place In The Sun, or maybe one of the Kings, King Vidor or Henry King: big movies with epic struggles against the land and epic struggles with love and hate. But at heart, the story is more Erskine Caldwell than Dreiser or Sinclair, with Serena being distracted by (and distracting, to the loss of a limb) grunting fundamentalist hard-man Rhys Ifans, whose one-note performance is a bass note, and Cooper's love for Serena driving a wedge between him and his right-hand man (David Dencik—who ought to be next in line to play Poirot) who nurses a severe crush on him. The steam that rises from all this is echoed mostly in Biel's fascination with showing literal smoke over the Smoky Mountains (with the Czech Republic standing in nicely for North Carolina and Tennessee).
The story is the film's release was delayed because the producers couldn't figure out how to sell it. And even though it's only 102 minutes, it seems longer, as if it wants to be (or was) more epic in scope. I wonder, because Rachel's father is played by Kim Bodnia, himself a fairly hot commodity after The Bridge, yet he doesn't have a single line in the picture. The way Ularu is kept silent virtually until the climatic scenes makes me think there are scenes missing that would have built more tension in the camp itself, which as it stands is merely a pretty set in a pretty location. At the same there is a lot of symbolism (not least the eagle and the snake, or various logging accidents) suggested but never really developed. And there seems to be something missing in Toby Jones' sheriff, played as Charles Laughton's mini-me.
This is very much the case of the whole being much less than the sum of its parts. Biel appears to have enjoyed the wider scope this story suggested, but in the end it has a very narrow focus on the stars, to the point some of their amour fou conflict becomes repetitive. But with two of the most marketable stars in the world, this should not be a bad thing. But I wonder. Lawrence inhabits roles in a way Cooper doesn't quite; he seemed to be always a step shy of letting go fully in Silver Linings, and here he shows a fatal weakness which he ought to be able to convey as a strength. But when Lawrence's strength transmutes into a Lady Macbeth madness, Cooper has no answer. What I thought was a holding back seems, in the faceof Lawrence's energy, a weakness: there is a soft core to Cooper's characters, to the extent I was thinking Michael Murphy as I watched this. Serena is an intriguing, interesting film, but one that raises more questions than it answers.