All Smoke, No Fire

(USA/France/Czech Republic, 109 min.)
Dir. Susanne Bier, Writ. Christopher Kyle
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Toby Jones, Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Courtesy of eOne Films.
I am so disappointed that they cut out the scene from the book where Serena and her trained eagle have a tag team fight with a Komodo dragon. What a novelty it would be see Katniss play Depression Era Hunger Games with a giant lizard! It is one thing to skip a Komodo dragon, but it’s another thing to excise the conflict, tension, and substance almost entirely whilst bringing a story to the screen. One can’t really complain that the dragon doesn’t make the cut in this adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel Serena, for although the film makes great sure of the Smoky Mountains, Serena breathes little fire.

Serena finally comes to the screen after a long-delayed production (star Jennifer Lawrence needed to do some standard dialogue redubbing, but Hunger Games commitments made looping tricky). The film marks the third reunion of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper after their back-to-back successes Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but third time isn’t the charm for this hot onscreen couple. Serena has no fizzle thanks to a half-baked screenplay by Christopher Kyle (Alexander) and wildly unfocused direction from Oscar winner Susanne Bier (Ina Better World). It’s a shame that Serena doesn’t come to life more boldly, since Rash’s novel, which is good but far from perfect, features a breathtaking scope, vivid imagery, and a wild villainess that all seem ripe for big screen drama. This take on Serena, however, is as dry and stiff as the lumber that George and Serena Pemberton peddle from up on high in the Smoky Mountains.

The film touches on many plot points, yet it does nothing with them. Serena, as a result, feels completely bloodless and it lacks both urgency and emotional depth. You’ll barely feel a thing when the film starts bumping people off and chances are you’ll have no reason why they’re targets. The book just screams for something in the vein of There Will Be Blood or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but Kyle’s adaptation fatally streamlines Serena into a bloodless love affair in which lumber baron George Pemberton (Cooper) sets his eye on Serena (Lawrence), the fetching horse rider with a mysterious past, and they’re married within minutes. There’s no sense of empire in the world Serena and George are struggling to preserve and expand besides the odd mention of Brazil and a line of dialogue here and there that notes how the Pembertons are up to tricky business. Bier, moreover, plays the drama far too reservedly, favouring bland shot/reaction shot interchanges without letting anything build tension; she loses sight of the epic scope that the film demands and there’s little opportunity to invite deeper readings since the film blips through all the troubles on the Pemberton lot in a game of connect the narrative dots.

Serena’s father, dead in a mysterious fire from her past (but don’t expect them to get into that much at all), was also a lumber baron, so she proves a shrewd asset at Pemberton’s fledgling lumber yard, which is currently fighting for its life against local forces keen to buy out the land for a national park. Serena undercuts the mystique of its heroine/villainess by making her nothing more than a woman scorned in love. Serena has an underlying wickedness in the novel, but little rises to the surface onscreen. The film stifles any chance for Lawrence to bring the character to life in the first hour of the film. (She is shockingly one-note.) Lawrence certainly looks the part and wears the period threads dashingly, but Serena shows that she performs best with a spunky, fiery character.

When Serena finally ignites the character late in the game, though, both Bier and Lawrence deliciously tackle the opportunity to make Serena a hot-blooded villain. The film smartly humanizes Serena while she takes a dark turn, since Bier’s choice simply to let the camera hold on Lawrence’s face as her fate takes an undesired turn lets Serena grasp her fall from power and lets Lawrence evolve her character into a pained fighter. There’s a lot of potential here, since the power of the tale lies in Serena’s dark side, and Bier smartly lets Lawrence control her character’s authority whereas the novel mostly defines Serena through the observations of men. One of the adaptation’s better strokes is omitting the lumberjacks who double as a Greek chorus and comment on the goings-on of the Pembertons, but the film also forgets to find a replacement for what it takes away and, consequently, nothing in Serena makes much sense.

Serena seems extra muddled since the international cast largely struggles with American accents. Whether Serena aims at parody or some kind of self-referential articulation of American megalomania is unclear, since the inconsistent performances of the supporting cast range from unintelligible (David Dencik) to cartoonishly snarling (Rhys Ifans) to enjoyably over the top (Toby Jones). Cooper fares worst of all, however, since his overly innocent Pemberton carries too many contemporary inflections and his bizarre accent (Boston-ish?) carries the most tells of the wayward direction. Just what exactly does Serena try to say with such a mix of self-referentiality and tonal inconsistency?

The film certainly looks gorgeous as the lensing of the landscape by Morten Sorberg frequently offers breathtaking shots of the natural mysteriousness of the setting. The new ending for the film also plays into the powerful imagery of the smoking mountains with the low hanging smoke, mist, and clouds that drape the landscape like a rolling wickedness. The abridged conclusion, however, also compensates for the fact that Serena has no real heft or drama, and it’s a quick, clean conclusion to what is ultimately a sprawling and messy affair. Lawrence and Cooper’s next project together can’t be any worse than Serena is, though, so it’s true that there’s a silver lining to everything.

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Serena is now playing in Ottawa at SilverCity Gloucester.