Since her breakthrough role in “Winter’s Bone,” Jennifer Lawrence has demonstrated remarkably good taste in her film projects. The notable exception to her streak of superb or strategic choices might appear to be “Serena,” a film that ended up languishing for almost three years in the editing bay and on the shelf – and for which Lawrence talked her “Silver Linings Playbook” co-star Bradley Cooper into signing up.
Directed by Oscar-winning Danish auteur Susanne Bier (“In a Different World”), “Serena” vindicates Lawrence’s discernment. Densely packed and gorgeously expressionist, the old-fashioned tragedy is very nearly a satisfying experience despite its various shortcomings. It also features a climactic infertility storyline – a Depression-era update of the Biblical “Sarah and Hagar” story, in which the barren wife of a rich man becomes homicidally jealous of the servant woman who gives birth to her husband’s bastard son – that might prove too remote an experience for modern audiences to relate to.
Cooper’s lumber magnate George and Lawrence’s orphaned heiress Serena plummet into a star-crossed romance, diving into a quickie courtship too impetuous for the society pages. After spotting her bestride a steed at an equestrian event, he’s instantly smitten. She’s “practically an aborigine,” according to George’s sister, but he proposes to the girl with the marcel waves and the mysterious past during their very first conversation.
In time, we learn to root for their love. As he gently bathes her by candlelight, Serena confesses her less-than-magnanimous actions on the night her family perished in a fire, and he instantly forgives her. She’s intoxicated by his affection and his admiration, the latter most visible when she heads out in silky blouses and thick, wooly pants into the dangerous lumber camp, instructing his exhausted men how to maximize profits for herself and her husband with hard-earned authority.
“I think you’ve taken nine months to do six months’ work,” she chides George’s advisor and closest friend Buchanan (David Dencik). She’s not just the boss’s wife, but his partner as well.
Serena’s gradual command over her husband’s business is rousing, not least when she rushes to apply a tourniquet with her belt while many months pregnant after one of the lumberjacks (Rhys Ifans) accidentally gets his hand axed off, thus saving his life.
But the couple’s happiness is not meant to last. No amount of Wonder Woman heroics will allay the environmentally-minded mayor’s (Toby Jones) threat to seize George’s land and turn the property into a national park. When the increasingly resentful Buchanan intimates he’ll expose George’s government bribes, Serena channels Lady Macbeth and urges her husband to do away with the man who endangers their happily ever after. Most crucially, the couple’s relationship is poisoned after Serena suffers a miscarriage and is told she’ll never be able to bear children.
Despite the routine maimings and deaths at the lumber camp, it’s frustratingly unclear whether we’re supposed to hold the innate hazards of the timber industry (one of the film’s larger themes) against George and Serena, its ambitious profiteers. Christopher Kyle’s plot-heavy but emotionally sparse screenplay also reveals too little of its characters’ roiling inner lives. Until all the loose plot strands snap into a single narrative thread in the third act, the film feels messy, and there’s little propulsion driving the story.
Despite a hokey, pseudo-British interwar accent, Cooper acquits himself in a laconic performance, as does Lawrence, who convincingly transforms from besotted newlywed and boardroom dominatrix to waxen psycho when Serena discovers that George might love his illegitimate child with his former maid (Ana Ularu) more than he loves her – especially after the revelation of her infertility begins haunting their bedroom.
As cuttingly selfish as George and Serena are, Bier’s tragedy succeeds in making us feel for how their dreams ultimately betray them, slowly burning away their wholehearted desires and fantasies of the future into nothing more substantial than fog rising above the mountains.