109 min., rated R.
Completed in 2012 as a hopeful bid for prestige-picture status, then sluggishly picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, the long-shelved and belatedly released "Serena" reunites Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence after David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle." Both stars are household names by now, but this Depression-era melodrama, an adaptation of Ron Rash's 2008 book from Danish director Susanne Bier (2012's "Love Is All You Need" and 2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire") and screenwriter Christopher Kyle (2004's "Alexander"), fails to impress. By nature, a 1930s story about greed, love and corruption in the lumber business is going to be dour and ponderous, but what lumbers along on screen is a plodding, bark-deep slog that screams, "Just read the book instead!"
As a Golden Age Hollywood costume drama with the Czech Republic posing for North Carolina, "Serena" is a hauntingly photographed but emotionally aloof love story. Set in the Smoky Mountains, 1929, the film begins with greedy, unethical North Carolina timber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) on the hunt for a rare panther. During his visit in Boston, he is mesmerized at first sight by Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), a gorgeous, strong-willed woman who was raised on a Colorado timber camp and then lost her family in a fire when she was twelve. Then, after a short exchange on horseback, Serena becomes Mrs. Pemberton. Complicating matters are the jealousies of George's right-hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), of Serena and Serena's of the mother, Rachel (Ana Ularu), of George's illegitimate son. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned after a miscarriage.
In adapting Ron Rash's book, director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle must have checked off the major plot points of the source material, hoping some sort of thematic or character substance would fill itself in later. The story is tedious, piddling and often choppily edited. The characters are equally as dull and underdeveloped. The pacing is more snail-like and comatose than unhurried. There's little tension. Even when the film tips into overwrought melodrama with throat slashings, murderous biddings, and an anticlimactic panther attack, Bier's sensibilities are far too tasteful for it to be entertainingly overwrought melodrama. The mystery surrounding Serena and the tragedy involving her family is more or less abandoned, and then Serena's kinship with mysterious woodsman Galloway (Rhys Ifans) seems to leap out of nowhere. Within 10 minutes, George and Serena are married. Within 109 minutes, we're still supposed to care to the blunt end.
Some contemporarily good-looking actors just don't mesh with the times of a period drama, and Bradley Cooper proves to be one of them, at least here. He's miscast and just okay as George, as his Boston accent noticeably comes and goes, and he's not really able to sell the character's moral ambiguity. Leave it to the baby-faced but versatile then-22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence to outshine Cooper. She always seems to be playing way ahead of her actual age and, as enigmatic siren Serena, might be the most interesting thing in the entire film. If only the title part were juicier on the page, so this could have been another standout performance to add to Lawrence's filmography. Respectively playing unhinged Appalachian woodsman Galloway and skeptical Sheriff McDowell, Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones round out the cast with professional, albeit unmemorable, work. No matter how lushly wrapped in period dress it might be or much star wattage it might have, "Serena" still comes out feeling like a bore.
Grade: C -