A critically-acclaimed source novel featuring a dramatic story rooted in the past, adapted for the screen and filled with an A-list cast, seems like it should make for Hollywood gold. So it is surprising that while Susanne Bier’s latest, Serena (2014), has all of these elements, it simply has none of the power or beauty of her usual films, or any other Hollywood fare for that matter. Set in 1929 in Depression-era North Carolina, Serena follows the story of George (Bradley Cooper), a young entrepreneur who falls in love with and marries the bewitching Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). On returning to his timber farm though, others aren’t as enamoured with his new wife as he would have hoped, or the changes this unusually headstrong woman brings to George’s business.
Although it might be easy to simply blame the blandness of Serena on the fact that this is only the second time Bier has directed a film exclusively in the English language (the first being Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)), the fault actually lies with Christopher Kyle’s drab adaptation of Ron Rash’s book. While Bier’s usual work with her regular writing partner Anders Thomas Jensen is affecting yet subtle, beautifully pulling together many themes, Kyle’s script has none of this, heavy-handedly bombarding us with metaphors and many, MANY dramatic clichés. Not only this, the pacing of Kyle’s script is incredibly poor. An introduction to George’s world is followed all too quickly by his first meeting with Serena, and they’re married even quicker than that. Kyle has the sense to slow the narrative down after this, but the trouble is that it practically comes to a stop, dragging along while we wait for the next twist in the story to arrive, most of which we can see coming a mile off. Maintaining your attention for the duration is partially rewarded with a final dramatic 15 minutes, yet even this is so out of place with what has come before it that it seems as if it has dropped in from another film entirely.
That initial narrative jump also makes it hard to connect to the characters of George and Serena, in turn making it hard to care what happens to them throughout the rest of the story. This could have been solved had the casting been right for this, but sadly Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence just don’t suit the lead roles, both looking visibly uncomfortable from the off. Their easy chemistry seen in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) isn’t on show here, and while Cooper turns in a decent enough performance, he looks wrong for the role – more like a GQ model posing as a 1920s timber baron than an actual character. And Lawrence, although she seems more suited in appearance to the role, struggles in the quieter, everyday scenes of the narrative, really only shining in the more melodramatic scenes (i.e.: whenever she has to cry…a lot). The rest of the cast however are all superb (in particular a nearly unrecognisable Rhys Ifans and a brilliantly smarmy David Dencik), but sadly they are all underused, often only appearing in at most two scenes before drifting away (presumably to find better film roles).
Beautifully shot landscapes prove that Bier still has some of her usual directorial magic, as do the moments she focuses on the narrative aspect of a strong woman trying to make it in a man’s world (an element that Bier says initially drew her to the story in an informative yet incredibly brief interview included in the limited DVD extras on the disc). But a poor script, sometimes with immensely dire dialogue and bad casting for the lead roles shatters the illusion, making this film very hard work to watch. This had the potential to be up there with the best this awards season. Instead we can only wonder what might have been.