REVIEW | Low-key release of ‘Serena’ speaks of film’s storytelling

It's not a good sign when a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence — two of the hottest actors working today, previously starring in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” — is given a low-profile release.

Suzanne Bier’s “Serena,” a period drama/romance/thriller, has been pretty much forgotten. After spending nearly two years in post-production, the picture was screened at the BFI London Film Fest in 2014 and given a limited theatrical release in February 2015, expanding on March 20.

Having seen the finished product, I can say it’s not a great film, especially considering the immense talent involved. Christopher Kyle’s script (based on Ron Rash’s book) is uneven, and the picture fails in terms of being a romance. Still, it’s well made, the leading performances are strong and there are other aspects of the narrative — besides the romance — that prove to be compelling enough to warrant at least a screening.

Taking place in the Smoky Mountains during 1929, the movie revolves around George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), an entrepreneur from the East Coast who runs a timber company. One day, he meets the beautiful, mysterious Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), who literally takes his breath away.

As a steamy romance, “Serena” fails right from the start. George and Serena’s meet-cute is rushed and unconvincing — before they have a chance to say two words to each other, they’re already married. Bier fails to establish a solid romantic base between them early on, so there’s no real spark in the later romantic sequences, either. In addition, Cooper and Lawrence are given cheesy dialogue to work with during these scenes.

Their relationship isn’t purely romantic; they’re two ambitious individuals locked in a business relationship. When George takes Serena to live with him in the mountains, she isn’t a feeble, stay-at-home housewife but an active member of the business. She supervises the logging camp, shows workers how to correctly saw a tree and immediately knows what to do when a worker has a serious accident. Naturally, her position of power doesn’t sit well with everyone, and this creates a tension between her and some of the other higher-ups in the company.

Also, the theme of civilization corrupting nature is prominently featured in “Serena.” At this point in time, the Smoky Mountains are one of the last virgin forests, so the government wants to turn it into a national park — a move that would mean no more logging. George is intent on being a successful businessman whatever the cost, and this notion is further emphasized through his reoccurring quest to hunt and kill a panther.

Meanwhile, the Great Depression is going on, and a major logging camp provides a number of jobs for local residents, a reality that further complicates this situation. It’s a fascinating point of tension that I wish Bier and Kyle had pursued further.

Unfortunately, the picture keeps leaning on the passionate-romance angle. Lawrence and Cooper continue to spout schmaltzy dialogue, and George’s other love interest, Rachel (Ana Uluru), is sadly one-dimensional.

As usual, Cooper gives a solid performance; his charming everyman qualities practically make him blend in with the period surroundings. George doesn’t always do admirable things, but Cooper infuses just enough likability and personality to make him compelling to follow. 

However, Lawrence is the true stand-out, giving an intimate and nuanced performance that gets more complex. Serena is strong and intelligent, fully capable of surviving on her own. As the movie goes on, Serena becomes increasingly unpredictable and unstable, something that George fails to see.

Overall, “Serena” isn’t the disaster its turbulent production would lead you to think. It’s well made: Morten Soborg’s cinematography captures the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains, highlighting the various shades of brown and green of the vegetation and the bright-orange sunsets peaking through clouded skies.

Nonetheless, it’s not the great movie it could have been, making its low-key theatrical release not very surprising.