By Kyle G. King. The primary reason why romances worked so well during Hollywood’s golden age was also a simple one: They all had one consistent aim, and that was to spread around the charm. By serving that spoonful of sugar, these films made the prospect of swallowing the bitter medicine of an excessive melodrama remarkably more palatable.
Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler — both wildly entertaining characters — may have been depicted as overstatements of the male and female ego, but they were well-ensconced in the era’s theatrical standards. What keeps timeless movies like Gone With The Wind and Casablanca relevant to this day are the talented and winsome actors who adapted such extravagant characters to the screen, as well as the high-grade production value of lavish costumes and luxurious set designs.
Leap forward roughly seventy-five years to an entirely different film industry, one that’s just released the long-shelved romance-thriller Serena. From Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, the film boasts a similarly decorated romance that is very much steeped in its own melodrama — with a bewitching cast to boot (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence reunite after Silver Linings Playbook) — but its self-important tone keeps it from becoming anything beyond a film mildly well-adapted from a steamy romance novel. (And yet it’s still better than Fifty Shades of Grey.)
Except Serena is not, in fact, adapted from a steamy romance novel. Screenwriter Christopher Kyle (Alexander) liberally redesigns Serena from author Ron Rash’s 2008 best seller of the same name, shifting the film’s source material (which focuses more on its female protagonist with themes of greed and corruption) in order to narrow in on Depression-era logging mogul George Pemperton (Cooper), whose more lusty facets ultimately give way to money-motivated murder.
Just as Los Angeles plays a supporting character in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Bier and cinematographer Morten Sørborg keep the Smoky mountain atmosphere and distinct woodland culture at the film’s forefront, with an abundance of wide-angle landscapes and an array of characters you couldn’t find anywhere else: Rhys Ifans’ Galloway, Pemperton’s mystical hunting partner and woodland scout, speaks very little beyond a little earthly wisdom (and conspiratorial prophecies), Toby Jones’ Sherif McDowell, a small town lawman and local conservationist, is equally welcome in the film, as is Pemperton’s distrusting lumber business partner, Buchanan (played by David Dencik).
After Pemperton takes a weekend off in Boston, he finds himself enchanted with local girl Serena Shaw (Lawrence), a horseback-riding free spirit who sports the crimped blonde bob of Jean Harlow and an intoxicating aura of mystery. (Naturally, by the third sentence into their first meeting, George proposes they should be wed.) When the passionate couple return to North Carolina, it’s made explicitly clear (by both parties) that Serena is not only Pemberton’s wife but his business partner as well. (Not to mention a Lady Macbeth type who is not to be trifled with.)
What begins as a storybook love affair and affluent business partnership turns, well… not so quickly into a tale of murder, greed, and an illegitimate love child from a 16 year-old girl, played ably by Romanian actress Ana Ularu. (The story burdens itself with almost thirty minutes of sequences depicting Serena proving herself worthy to work with lumber.) Male and female egos are harshly bruised when it’s revealed that Serena is unable to conceive children, leading George to be constantly haunted by a choice between remaining faithful to a barren wife over that of becoming a caring father. The prospect of children (or the lack thereof, inside their marriage anyway), slices through the Pemperton’s once optimistic marriage as the two align separately with their own questionable agendas to do away with one another.
Serena maximizes its drama on a soap-operatic level; it’s a film that continues to bleed and bleed once the first act violently concludes. From first frame to last, the story is deliberately paced to be as slow as possible, which would allow drama to organically creep in but the film still manages to come out undercooked. Because the script deviates so much from its source material, characters that may have once been well-crafted have mutated into very unbalanced people. Lawrence has an encompassing (and thankless) arc to carry as Serena, and while she does hit some subtle notes during the first half (she does wonders with a classic haircut and her eternally coy eyes), she ends up belting theatrical puffery into the second that ultimately loses our trust.
While Cooper has even less to do with a role that essentially makes him a patsy for his wife (and worse, for the films confused morality), nothing gets ironed out enough in order for George’s paradigm shift during the third act to fully register. The actors’ star profiles take root much more deeply than any of their despicable characters are ever allowed to, and it’s not enough. We’re left with a plotless mess to piece together ourselves without anything to work with.
What works far more consistently is the foggy and dreamlike cinematography that supports the less than grounded facets to the pairs’ anti-romance. Shot in the hills of the Czech Republic, the mountains of North Carolina are staged to appear unfamiliar as if we were actually transported to a different era entirely. Sørborg and Bier’s well-composed tree-lined imagery replaces distracting production design and opens the audience up to the idea of American folklore (think of a more intimate and sultry Cold Mountain). Tight frames and smart, detective-like camera movement help move the story along in addition to adding a classic noir energy. Visually speaking, Serena has what it takes to carve out a place as a vintage Hollywood throwback, but as for everything else, the poor script and off-form direction from Susanne Bier has left Serena yelling timber to a hastily-cleaved tree.
Serena does fine work for Morten Sørborg and the country of Czech Republic, but everyone else attached might have wished it stayed shelved for another few years (production wrapped in 2012). Instead of charm, we’re left with befuddlement and anger; Bier, Lawrence, and Cooper are all capable of superior material. It may be suited for a quiet movie night in with a partner, but professionally I’d urge you to watch a Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable film first, and then make some time for Serena. Perhaps then your senses will be more finely tuned for the soap opera of big emotions Serena proves to be.