Director Suzanne Bier
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones and Sean Harris
Running time: 110 minutes
Release date: October 24th
The story of Serena, the film, may never become fully known to the public. Starring two of Hollywood’s hottest actors, based on a bestselling – and excellent – book, and directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, it should be the subject of hype, rave reviews and an avalanche of awards and garlands.
Instead, Serena sat on the shelf for nearly two years, sadly waiting for a distributor. It was filmed, amazingly, before its stars went on to make American Hustle.
When a film is treated this way, it means one of two things. The first possibility is that it’s a gem that’s misunderstood by distributors and studios, and that its weirdness is an unseen asset, like say Idiocracy or The Cabin in the Woods (both of which had distribution problems). The second possibility is that it’s a sub-par film, and one that struggles to appeal even with its star power. Sadly, Serena is in the second camp.
Serena takes place in North Carolina in the 1920s. George Pembleton (Bradley Cooper) and his beautiful new bride Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) own a logging company that employs dozens of local unfortunates. There’s potential conflict in the shape of some locals who want land preserved as a national park; a suspicious sheriff (the always welcome Toby Jones) and an employee of George’s who’s with child.
The Pembletons are taking it in their stride, but how much land is enough, and can they withstand the pressures from outside and inside their marriage?
Serena – the book – is a biblical parable of revenge, environmentalism, feminism, and aspiration. It’s passionate, grandiose and tells its story with grace and black humour. Serena – the film – is flat, listless, miscast, rudderless and ultimately pointless.
In a baffling bid to make the book’s lead characters more sympathetic, the cinematic Pembletons are now defanged, bland and, at times, nonsensical. Lawrence, a fine actress, is hopelessly miscast as the strong-willed, ambitious Serena. While (I guess) the filmmakers and actress are trying to portray cold, level-headed decision-making, Lawrence’s performance is often surprisingly dull and emotionless. Lawrence’s vulnerability, which is one of the actress’s greatest strengths, works against her here. And she’s often stranded by stilted dialogue. Her performance as a log baroness is even occasionally…wooden.
Cooper fares better, definitely, and is more at home in his role as the confident entrepreneur. But while he manages to muster up some charisma and steel, his character too, is surprisingly devoid of personality.
This is also a stain on the CV of its director, Suzanne Bier, who made the fine Love is All You Need and the awesome In a Better World. Maybe this might have worked if (as originally planned) it was made by Darren Aronofsky with Angelina Jolie in the lead?
To be fair, the sterling supporting cast all do decent work. And, again in the interest of fairness, this was a mighty project to take on and needed a bigger budget than they seemed to have, which might explain why it feels hemmed in when it should have had the epic sweep of a John Ford western.
The good news for all concerned is that bad films usually disappear soon after release. Within a few months, this film will be forgotten like burned timber, and Lawrence can resume her career as this generation’s big screen sweetheart.