Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, two dazzling Hollywood mega-stars, in a dramatic, gothic love story sounds like a great movie. But unfortunately, while “Serena” has some fine acting, the story is choppy and melodramatic, the pacing is way too slow and none of the characters is plausible. But I did want to see how it ended.
“Serena” is set in 1929 in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains. Cooper plays George Pemberton, an adventurous Bostonian who left its high society to develop a timber business in the wilderness. He’s learned to hunt and fish, split rails, build train tracks and fall trees, while his friend and business partner Buchanan (Swedish actor, David Dencik, Hollywood’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) helps to run the business. While visiting Boston, Pemberton spies the gorgeous svelte blond Serena, well-played by the Academy Award-winning Lawrence.
Serena had spent her childhood on a logging camp in Colorado where she suffered an awful childhood trauma. But Pemberton never seems to question her about it until after their whirlwind courtship has ended in marriage. Their sexual attraction is made obvious through several steamy sex scenes. Yet, they do seem to be soul mates as well — they both have strong personalities and are both equally comfortable and knowledgeable about the rural logging industry.
In a development unusual for the 1920s, Serena is introduced to the loggers as an equal partner in the timber business. This is all news to partner Buchanan. In an industry in which men risk their lives daily, Serena’s knowledge and help slowly gains her respect. We see her hunt rattlesnakes and save the life of the strange tracker and seer Galloway (Rhys Ifans, the upcoming “Snowden”). Camera close-ups on Galloway show him gazing into the far distance. That’s how we know that he is a seer.
Based on hackneyed plot complications, Serena devolves into a Lady Macbeth of the mountains with Galloway as her servant, as the film moves toward a too predictable ending.
The novel “Serena,” written in 2008 by award-winning Appalachian poet and novelist, Ron Rash, was well-reviewed and named a best book of the year by the New York Times, Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. As is sadly too common among books turned into movies, in “Serena,” character development and subplots get short shrift.
For example, hardly relevant is the movement to create a National Park in the Smokies. It does provide background for the animus between the loggers and some townsmen, including the local sheriff (Toby Jones) however.
And although we see dramatic, though over-long shots of the mountains, it’s not the Smokies that we are seeing, but mountain scenery near Prague, the Czech Republic, where the filming occurred.
Susan Bier has directed some fine dramatic films, including the Oscar-winner for best foreign film of 2010, “In a Better World,” and “Things We Lost in the Fire.” And she directs Cooper and Lawrence, particularly Lawrence, very well here. Lawrence’s silent close-ups convey an extensive range of emotions, yet she appears natural and unforced. She’s almost worth the price of admission. The two actors excelled in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.” But “Serena” in no way lives up to those films.