Logging is dangerous business. You’ve no doubt heard (or even seen) your fair share of logging horror stories. It would seem that the people who are able to make a successful career in the industry are aware of the risks, and can anticipate a potentially hazardous situation by taking the proper precautions. But hiring an experienced crew and choosing a reliable base of operations isn’t always enough. Sometimes, despite the best efforts, the unthinkable happens, and it leaves everyone wondering how things could go so wrong.
Serena is just that kind of tragedy. One that could have been prevented.
It’s 1929, and George Pemberton is in danger of losing his Smoky Mountain timber empire after the Black Tuesday stock market crash. While back home in Boston, he meets and marries the mysterious Serena, the daughter of a late lumber baron. Together they return to the Smoky Mountains and must resort to desperate measures to keep from losing their company and their marriage.
Here, the Czech mountains stand in for the Smoky Mountains of the American Carolinas. But I can’t imagine that early twentieth century logging camps differed that much from one another: a few hastily built cabins for operations, barracks to house the men, some stables, long dirt roads that lead to the cutting sites. Your particular area of expertise involves cableway extraction, where winches and cranes are used to move the massive logs down the mountain. Early in Serena, one of these cranes fails, gravely injuring a worker. George leaps into action to save another worker. If this is meant to demonstrate his heroism, it doesn’t quite square with the same man who summons a young woman from the cookhouse to his quarters for some after hours logjammin’. Endemic throughout the film are George’s conflicting traits, which are meant to add dimension, but instead lead to exasperation—and, ultimately, indifference.
Serena herself first appears astride a white horse. To say Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast to play Lady Macbeth-lite gives the film too much credit. She is just so frighteningly talented that at this point audiences would probably accept her playing Batman. And she would kill it. When she arrives at the basecamp on George’s arm, they’re greeted by a very pregnant cookhouse girl. Serena sums up the situation and coolly dismisses her. She very quickly proves herself equal to any man in the camp, training an eagle to catch snakes, showing the men how to properly angle a cut, and saving the life of the camp scout. It’s easy to see why Buchanan, George’s right hand man, feels edged out and plots to give up the cooked accounting books to the sheriff.
But I bet you’d welcome such a remarkable woman at your logging operation, wouldn’t you? It’s too bad, then, that Serena devolves from a confident and complicated female lead into a film trope generator.
When she has a miscarriage, then learns that George has been supporting his illegitimate child, she becomes unhinged. She convinces George they need to dispatch of anyone that might destroy what they’ve built (you know, because women are crazy). But this is probably because, as a child, she lost her whole family (you know, because orphan women are even crazier). The last act of the film sees characters confessing, running from peril, and sustaining brutal acts of violence. There’s also a government land-grab subplot and a panther-as-hunter/prey metaphor to fill in the blank spaces on the narrative-device bingo card.
J-Law’s tween fans will likely be put off by Serena’s dreary pacing and unrelenting doom. Director Susanne Bier’s fans will be especially disappointed by the story’s lack of focus and abrupt character development, flaws absent in her far superior films like After The Wedding, and In A Better World. The look of the film is typical Bier, though: moody and sparse, with faces shot like landscapes, gorgeously lit by moonlight and candles. The score is particularly haunting and evocative. The cast – Bradley Cooper, Toby Jones and Rhys Ifans, and, of course, Lawrence – is exceptional. That’s why it’s so frustrating that the film’s core elements, though carefully conceived, are undermined by the anemic script adapted from Ron Rash’s novel.
It’s just a shame we couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
Happier Trails To You,