The charms of Serena's lead performers are worthy of note, but if we don't care about the characters they're portraying, we won't care when they start smashing into each other. And I just didn't care.
It's 1929. Lumber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) and his new bride Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) arrive in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina to start their empire. George learns he fathered an illegitimate son with Rachel (Ana Ularu), a former employee, which causes friction with the intelligent, formidable Serena.
To call this a melodrama would be an insult to the genre. This is an italicized drama with a capital D, an exclamation mark, and a music cue. It's a Drama! (Dun dun duh!)
The film was shot prior to Cooper and Lawrence's first on-screen pairing in Silver Linings Playbook, and has collected dust on a studio's shelf until now. What changes were made to the film between the director's initial cut and the theatrical cut, I do not know. Perhaps none. But Serena feels somehow incomplete. The opening ten minutes feel rushed, as if those tasteful fades to black were employed to conceal scar-like edits.
Both George and Serena reveal themselves to be ruthless and nasty individuals, willing to commit murder in order to maintain their empire. There's nothing wrong with an unlikable protagonist. I'm reminded of P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, a film that handled similar themes in a much more effective way. I just don't care about George Pemberton, or Serena, whose motivations are as selfish as his. Yet, I did care about Blood's Daniel Plainview; that vicious, cruel and greedy old bastard.
Adapted from the bestseller by Ron Rash, the novel's themes peek through the cracks of the film. It's subversively amusing to find ourselves following a protagonist who yearns to clear-cut entire forests, instead of the environmental conservationists trying to save the trees. Gender roles are also reversed and subverted, but then cast aside as the 3rd act devolves into a melodramatic genre dullness.
Lawrence has undeniable moments of quiet vulnerability, notably as she waves goodbye to her husband, tears in her eyes and mud on her hands. But in the context of the film, these moments are too infrequent.
George's heavy-handed man versus nature denouement is meant to be haunting, but instead comes across almost laughable. Even the least attentive film goer will roll their eyes at the obviousness of the film's message. It's the type of message usually delivered by a person dressed all in hemp clothing and peppered with the word: "Bruh."
The supporting cast, such as Toby Jones (The Mist), Rhys Ifans (Human Nature), and Sean Harris (24 Hour Party People) deserve credit for their subtle and understated performances. They somehow overcome the screenplay's stilted dialogue and improbable narrative developments. In fact, Harris achieves more with his gaze cast sadly at the ground than Cooper can pull off with nearly two hours of screen time.
Serena regards its characters from a distance. We know little of George's past. Serena's back story (so macabre and over the top, it brought to mind a scene from Game of Thrones) seems to simultaneously explain everything and nothing.
Director Susanne Bier (the Oscar-winning In a Better World) is an immensely talented filmmaker. Her subjects: Cooper, Lawrence and the Smokey Mountains themselves are lush and pretty, but ultimately fleeting. They are misused in a muted and lackadaisical fashion. Even the most photogenic subject in the world is rendered lifeless if you fail to creatively employ it. At the end of the day, the film is a beautifully-photographed mess.
This is a story about frigid and wounded people, whom we never really get to know. We can feel the heartbeat of an engaging and moving story within certain moments, but ultimately, Serena flat-lines. Admittedly, it must be tricky to turn a great book into an equally great movie. What works best in a novel and what works best in a film rarely overlap.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.