Editor’s note: Our review of Serena originally ran during last year’s London Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.
Serena is one of two films from director Susanne Bier screening at the 2014 London Film Festival, and the other is a Danish-language film titled A Second Chance. While both of these have a lot to say about babies only one of them is completely enthralling from its opening scene to its end while the other bores for at least an hour before shifting into a high-tension ending. Sadly, despite the well-established chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, Serena is the latter film.
Cooper plays George, a lumber baron whose finances are starting to wear thin right around the time the sheriff (Toby Jones) decides that George’s land would be best utilized as a national park. George also has some untouched land in Brazil, but he’s uninterested in selling either piece of property. Just as his financial worries begin, George meets Serena (Lawrence), an independent woman whose entire family died in a fire years ago.
They wed almost instantly with George taking Serena in as a partner at his timber company much to the annoyance of his long-term colleagues. She actually has a history in lumber and has a fair amount of outside of the box knowledge – even to the point of training an eagle to snatch up the rattlesnakes that have been taking out George’s team – but most of his men never grow to appreciate Serena. The only person besides George who seems to like Serena is Galloway (Rhys Ifans), a hardened worker whose life she saves after a bizarre accident.
Plenty of the dialogue sounds unreal and unlikely to be said by any human being in the context presented by the film, but it’s Galloway’s lines that are most awkward. He seems to only ever speak outlandish, one-line phrases that sound like a joke, making his character irredeemable by Ifans’ performance. The goofiness wouldn’t be so detrimental to the film if Galloway wasn’t such a vital aspect of the film’s third act.
The lumber company shenanigans and awkward colleague tensions go on for about half of the film, during which it just feels like there’s little to no progression or movement. It becomes apparent almost immediately that George’s marriage/partnership with Serena will become a wedge between him and his staff, but this obvious turn of events plays out painstakingly slow. Christopher Kyle’s screenplay doesn’t do much initially to detail the characters, and it’s consequently difficult to care about them. The incohesive script goes from one sub-plot to another without spending enough time on anything of substance that might get the audience invested.
Eventually, the two begin to have marital problems unrelated to trees, and the film gets into a more timeless territory. An inevitable power struggle develops between them when Serena realizes that she cannot have a child, and matters worsen when George’s ex-lover and mother of his child comes back to town, baby-in-arms. Unfortunately by this point in the film, the only quality aspect of note has been the production value. Timely costuming and beautiful backdrops are only worth so much.
By the time the film picks up in intensity it’s almost too late. It’s been too boring for too long and both George and Serena prove themselves to be pretty unlikable people. Cooper and Lawrence’s performances keep the film barely alive, but at the same time, Serena showcases two of these performer’s lamest acts. Lawrence’s Serena is flat for most of the film, while Cooper’s George seems to change from scene to scene with a fittingly wavering accent.
Admittedly having never read Ron Rash’s source material, it does seem like there is a classic tale about dramatic marital struggles in the depression-era Smokey Mountains befitting of an awesome movie. Serena just isn’t that film, and no amount of good will for Cooper and Lawrence can change that. Your time would be much better spent on Bier’s other marriage drama, A Second Chance, instead.
The Upside: Attractive and polished production design; third act tension
The Downside: Insufferable characters; lame dialogue; boring storyline
On the Side: Darren Aronofsky was originally set to direct Serena with Angelia Jolie starring