Danish director Susanne Bier seems to have been attempting an old-fashioned, 1940s-style star-laden romantic tragedy with her adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel “Serena,” but in the event the film, completed in 2012 but only being released three years later, proves a major misfire. Starting slowly but then exploding with over-the-top melodramatics in the latter stages, the film comes off as a period piece in a couple of senses: it’s set in the early twentieth century, but is also a rickety dramatic construct that might have been more at home in the days of silent movies.
Set in North Carolina during the early years of the Great Depression, the story’s protagonist is George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), who’s operating a lumber business in the Great Smoky Mountains. His advisor Buchanan (David Dencik) frets over financial setbacks that might threaten the business (as well as other Pemberton landholdings in Brazil). But the work proceeds anyway, with George depending on his foreman Campbell (Sean Harris) to keep things running smoothly even in the face of accidents, while he often goes off with his mystical mountain-man Galloway (Rhys Ifans) to track down and kill a panther—a quest which takes on metaphorical significance in the plot. Also posing a threat are the efforts of conservationists, led by local Sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) to turn a good deal of the territory into a national park, closed to logging.
On a trip to civilization George encounters Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), the ravishing blonde survivor of a Colorado logging disaster. Soon the two are wed, and George brings his icily beautiful bride home to the discomfort of Buchanan, who will later say that nothing was the same between him and Pemberton after her arrival (a roundabout way of indicating his deeper longings for George). In fact, the relationship between Buchanan and Pemberton will sour so badly that the former will conspire to reveal George’s financial misdeeds to McDowell and his confederates, which might lose him all his land and send him to jail. That act of betrayal will lead Pemberton to deal with the threat posed by Buchanan in a most direct way.
Meanwhile Serena becomes concerned over George’s relationship with his former mistress Rachel (Ana Ularu), who’s pregnant with his child. When Serena herself becomes pregnant but suffers a miscarriage, her hostility toward Rachel and the son she gives birth to will lead her to plan revenge, a plot that will involve Galloway, whose life she was instrumental in saving and who now believes it his sacred duty to serve her unquestioningly. As Paul Thomas Anderson observed about similarly obsessive attempts to achieve the capitalist dream (as well as that of domestic bliss), there will be blood.
At least as scripted by Christopher Kyle, this is potboiler material, but as directed by Bier it’s presented in the stately, self-important style of a 1940s period melodrama (think of something like Joseph Mankiewicz’s “Dragonwyck”) or even later ones (think Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”). And Lawrence, with her long, silken, gleaming white tresses and a wardrobe that includes skin-tight safari trousers, light-as-air ball gowns and posh bathrobes, looks like someone who’s stepped out of the pages of a glossy 1920s fashion magazine. Her performance, on the other hand, doesn’t exhibit much inner fire: Serena seems more petulant than possessed. As her virile husband, Cooper reverts to the blandness that marked his work until recently. The remaining cast strikes no sparks either, with Ifans almost ridiculously brooding, Campbell a caricature of nervousness, Jones trying ineffectually for a southern drawl and Dencik (who recently appeared as the driver in “Kidnapping Mr. Heineken”) working desperately to suggest his inner sexual desires through furtive glances and stumbling line delivery. Ularu is a striking presence, however; her scenes holding George’s chubby, angelic young son often look like paintings.
Indeed the purely pictorial side of the film is pretty impressive overall (think “Heaven’s Gate” again). Within the context of Bier’s solemn, deliberate style (accentuated by the editing of Mat Newman and Pernille Bech Christensen)—as well as Richard Bridgland’s production design, Martin Kurel’s art direction, the set decoration by Graham Purdy and Bara Bucharova and Signe Sejlund’s costumes—the widescreen images captured by cinematographer Morten Soborg are often very impressive, especially when accompanied by Johan Soderqvist’s moody score. (The wilds of the Czech Republic stand in for the North Carolina mountains to great effect.) To watch Lawrence stride about against the background they create is visually compelling.
But there’s no life in the action occurring within the carefully-crafted period settings; as drama the film remains inert, stodgy and unconvincing, utterly failing to capture the chemistry that Cooper and Lawrence achieved in their work with David O. Russell, “Silver Lining Playbook” and “American Hustle.” Indeed, for all its seriousness and high-class production values, “Serena” is a different sort of hustle, one that promises, on the basis of its cast and crew, a lot more than it delivers.