SERENA Review

When thinking about what to write about a film I typically latch onto a main idea that comes to mind as I watch the movie. With something like Serena though it is hard to pin down because there isn't really anything there for one to think about and so the main idea, by default, becomes the lack of investment in what is going on. Despite the countless attempts by the story to keep throwing curve balls in an exhaustive manner intended to make me care there was simply nothing to dig into here. In many ways, I'm still sitting here wondering what exactly I watched as I type this and try to formulate a response to a film I'm not quite sure I understood the purpose of. What was it trying to say? Was there something I missed or were its intentions to purely demonstrate melodrama for the sake of entertainment? I may never key into what exactly director Susanne Bier's long delayed project wanted to be because I likely won't ever sit down to take it in again, but if there is anything to be said for the effort it is that I can see how this felt like a good idea. A winning formula, if you will. Grab two of the biggest movie stars on the planet right now (though at the time this was made they could easily be labeled up and comers), stick them in a period piece where they can flaunt their dramatic acting chops and lift the story from a well-received 2008 novel by Ron Rash in hopes that something of an Awards contender emerges. Unfortunately, that is not what we have on our hands here, but instead Serena is simply a middle of the road movie that features solid performances from its two leads and an eclectic host of supporting players with some lush photography and naturally gorgeous locations, but never matches its aesthetic in theme or story as it devolves into one trite situation after the next. These situations are intended to up the shock factor and the audiences emotional response and investment, but rather feel forced into a film that was never really all that interesting in the first place.

It is 1929, in the months we assume are leading up to the official start of the great depression, and timberman George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is intent on keeping his business afloat and his lifestyle intact. Along with his best friend and business partner, Buchanan (David Dencik), the two have built something of an empire in the North Carolina hills. In fact, ole Mr. Pemberton has been so dedicated to living at the camp where the work needs to be done that he has already fathered an illegitimate child by Rachel (Ana Ularu). The atmosphere begins to shift when in something of a whirlwind weekend Pemberton meets and proposes marriage to the mysterious Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). It is this titular character that brings a new layer of tension to everything that was previously on smooth sails at the heart of Pemberton's business. Serena, from a timber family herself and the only surviving member of a tragic house fire, invests every penny she has in her husbands company allowing her to not only be his partner in life, but in business as well. Serena expects nothing less than any man in power is granted. She is equal and she makes her worth known by developing methods of doing away with a rattlesnake problem and even saving the life of trusted Pemberton advisor Mr. Galloway (Rhys Ifans). There is also the question of a park taking over the site of Pemberton's camp that is championed by town sheriff (Toby Jones) and his investigation into what might be some unlawful dealings by Pemberton in order to keep his business afloat, but the heart of the plot comes when Rachel re-enters the picture with her son, George's child, and Serena can't handle the inherent care her husband might feel for the boy. This brings the focus back to the relationship between George and Serena, which should be the main focus of the film, but it is never established or developed well enough to make the third act leave as much of an impact as it should.

George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) shows his new wife, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), her new house.
While we are expected to believe Cooper's George falls for Lawrence's Serena upon first sight and essentially becomes willing to do whatever it takes to make her his own and keep her happy we are never really privy to what makes the relationship tick other than a few awkwardly edited scenes of intimacy that make it seem as if they're both just in it for the quality of the pleasure provided. I understand that Serena feels both like a kindred spirit to George and something of a wounded bird for him to nurse back to health, but the more the layers of Serena's power-hungry mentality are revealed and the more her obsession rather than love for him grows the film should dive just as deep into this relationship with them. Instead, it keeps things broad, dealing with the specific plot points to move the story along to its necessary conclusion, but damn if Bier might have allowed these two actors to dig into the psychology of their relationship and lay it all out on the line for us. Then, at that point, is when you might have had something audience members would be truly willing to invest their time and emotions in. Instead, Serena ends up feeling more like the step-sister of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation in that the twists keep on coming, but the weight of the scenarios is lighter than a feather. There honestly isn't much more to be said for the film as it certainly promises a lot, but is ultimately unable to deliver on the expectations set by all of the talent involved. I also realize it isn't my place to necessarily make suggestions on what a movie should be, but to discuss what it is and take it as such. Still, in thinking of what to bring to the table in terms of Serena what it is and what it so easily could have been feel so close that the realization of its shortcomings are all the more disappointing.