Saying that Susanne Bier’s Serena is better than most of its reviews and its troubled production history suggest doesn’t really do more than damn it with faint praise. Actually, it’s not at all bad — so long as you approach it as trashy, preposterous soap. On that level, it’s waywardly entertaining. Having never read the apparently somewhat deeper source novel by Ron Rash, and never having seen Susanne Bier’s original cut, I’m simply looking at the film as a melodramatic potboiler that MGM might have turned out about 75 years ago as a vehicle for Clark Gable and Joan Crawford — only with less iconic stars and Ms. Bier’s trademark hand-held camerawork. If you can wallow in that sort of thing, you may be able to enjoy it for what it is.
Of course, Serena also has local interest in the Asheville area because of the book’s author and its Western North Carolina and occasional Asheville setting. However, it’s as well to realize that the movie was shot in what we may call the Great Smoky Carpathian Mountains in the Czech Republic. While that was mostly an economic consideration, it may also have been easier to recreate the story’s 1929 setting in that locale. In any case, it’s a reasonable facsimile, and Bier gets the good out of it — maybe too much so with her tendency to linger on moody views of the mountains.
The story itself is frankly on the silly side. Bradley Cooper plays unscrupulous timber baron George Pemberton, whose big plan is to rape the Smokies of every tree he can — with the aid of some bribed politicians and his right-hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), who complicates matters by being very obviously in love with Pemberton. Then Pemberton is smitten on sight with Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), a peculiar woman who may or may not have incinerated her entire family by burning down the family mansion. Undeterred by this possibility, he sweeps her off her feet (it doesn’t seem to take that much effort), marries her and takes her back to the logging camp — much to the distress of Buchanan. Soon Serena is proving herself a useful addition to the business — ultimately, too useful because of her mysteriously driven nature.
The whole thing hinges on jealousies — Buchanan’s jealousy of Serena, Serena’s jealousy of the woman (Ana Ularu) who bore Pemberton’s son — and acts of revenge and corruption. And that’s without factoring in the character of Galloway (Rhys Ifans), a creepy rustic with mystical notions that attach him to Serena. (To up the melodrama, Galloway is also mighty handy with a straight razor — and not in the tonsorial sense.) It’s all a bit like overheated Faulkner — minus miscegenation (and how they missed that, I do not know). Moreover, it boasts no less than two variants on Chekhov’s gun, which might be called Chekhov’s panther and Chekhov’s cigarette lighter. I realize all this makes Serena sound utterly preposterous. Well, that’s because it is, but that’s the very thing that makes it kind of fascinating.
Bier handles it all with aplomb and evidences a good sense of period — there’s an excellent use of Paul Whiteman’s recording of “There Ain’t No Sweet Man (That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears).” Of course, her peripatetic camerawork will factor into your enjoyment. Actually, it mostly worked for me. The performances are fine within the limits of the barely motivated characters. Rhys Ifans easily walks away with the picture, but that may be because backwoods psychotics don’t need much in the way of additional characterization. I can’t really recommend Serena in any traditional sense, but I won’t deny that I enjoyed its pulpy preposterousness. Rated R for some violence and sexuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.