Somewhat misleadingly, Susanne Bier’s Serena has received the bulk of its press in the form of articles wondering why a reunion between the stars of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle went straight to VOD. This is a little unfair since Magnolia Pictures, like many other distributors, chose to start there before a token theatrical run. The point remains, however, that this is not an event release.
Following a hasty romance and marriage, lumber baron Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) returns with his instant love Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) to his North Carolina site. Pemberton urges his employees not to treat his wife as just “a woman,” but to benefit from her managerial skills and know-how. Despite passionate sex scenes, the couple’s happiness is threatened: An unfriendly sheriff (Toby Jones), who’s also a passionate conservationist, lays claim to Pemberton’s land for a greater good, to which the businessman argues that only he provides useful labor.
This somewhat abstract conflict between idealistic governance and ecologically indifferent capitalism is undermined by the Pembertons’ homicidal tendencies, which first emerge on a hunt. Serena moves away from any bigger picture arguments about labor and capital into an increasingly baroque plotline in which bodies are racked up and a grimly efficient henchman (an unexpected, serviceable Rhys Ifans) is acquired. The film is very sympathetic to Serena, repeatedly emphasizing how she’s marginalized as a woman in a business context and in her own marriage by her inability to accept that her husband has a child with another woman. Florid plot developments leave Lawrence little room for scope, and she goes instead for volume, crying, and other big acting tics.
Played as a kind of constant wake, grimly marching on to tragedy, Serena is hurt by relentless applications of Johan Söderqvist’s unimaginatively somber score and DP Morten Søborg’s reliance on lots of over-the-shoulder handheld shots, the camera swinging close to and around people’s faces and shoulders. There’s simply not that much to see in the performances. The Czech Republic stands in for the South, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. But Pemberton’s estate never seems like more than a few laboriously aged constructions populated by anonymous, largely silent extras—in other words, something like McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s Vancouver-built mining town, only it never comes to convincing life.