There may be a few films on offer that are more depressing than the 2014 drama Serena, but one feels it would be difficult to find them. The film, directed by Susanne Bier and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of a lumber baron and his lady love who lose everything by the final reel.
The drama was a long time coming to the US, after premiering in London and doing abysmally at the box office, it took another year for the film to make it across the big pond to be shown in a limited release and then heading straight to on-demand streaming. While the film does look sumptuous, with the Czech Republic doubling for the Smoky Mountains, the plot is off-putting and contains too many holes and illogical twists to make it entertaining.
Bradley Cooper is lumber magnate George Pemberton, who falls in love with Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence) at first sight. Apparently Shaw’s father, who died with the rest of her family in a horrific house fire, was a lumber baron in Colorado. The two marry after a whirlwind romance and Serena comes back to the Smoky Mountains to help George run his lumber business.
A number of things happen, George’s best friend and partner Mr. Buchanan (David Dencik) hates the new woman in his friend’s life. He makes no bones about his distaste for Serena who sets about winning over everyone else.
Everyone, that is, bar Rachel ( Ana Ularu), the local girl who has had George’s baby “on the wrong side of the sheets.” She hovers around the lumber camp working her old job while Pemberton gives her money for his illegitimate son. Serena is soon pregnant and an accident on the mountainside results in her losing the baby. She will not be able to have another one and the woman becomes more than distraught.
Therein lies one of the problems with the film. Lawrence, as Serena, certainly delivers in terms of performance literally chewing up great chunks of emotion and spewing them out. Then falling apart when things go wrong at the end. The loss of the baby is meant to be the main cause of her deadly turn but from the very first Serena Pemberton, Nee’ Shaw, has been proactive in terms of “taking out the opposition.”
She encourages her husband to murder his friend and business partner and this before she miscarries. The backstory to her character could lead one to believe that there was more than one reason that she survived that house fire, but it is never addressed fully.
Serena’s change from strong positive role model, she trains an eagle to kill rattlesnakes to murderous b*tch from hell does not track, especially when considering her orders to George about killing Buchanan. The loss of the baby does not introduce her cold blooded side, that was present before, but that is what the film does seem to be saying.
Cooper does an adequate job as George but sadly his character is too cold, aloof and (Sorry Bradley) passionless to be likable. One feels it was his money that attracted Serena, just as it attracted the camp washer girl Rachel. There is never one thing that stands out about Pemberton apart from the clear lust he has for his new wife.
Perhaps the only thing that works well is the chemistry between the two, in the love scenes that is. It is, unfortunately, not enough to carry the whole thing along. The creepy Galloway (Rhys Ifans) “he has visions,” is odd enough that one wonders why he is kept on, especially after he becomes oddly devoted to Serena and begins to murder for her.
All the actors deliver. Toby Jones (Wayward Pines, Berberian Sound Studio) is brilliantly annoying as the small town sheriff with big plans for a national park and a clear animosity towards Pemberton. Sean Harris, as Campbell, is excellent as the doomed chap with a conscience and Ana Ularu as the simpleminded single mom of George’s child is spot on.
*Sidenote* Ularu manages to be doubly annoying as she fluctuates between either moping around the camp or gloatingly playing with George’s love child in front of Serena. One can easily see the new wife getting fed up with having this local yokel hanging around.
For all the beauty of the cinematography and the powerhouse acting involved, the film is depressing and lacking any real empathy for any of the characters. No one is likable enough for the audience to care when these bad things happen to them. Whether it is the fault of Susanne Bier or the script failing to make the characters more sympathetic does not really matter. The film just does not work.
At 109 minutes, the film feels longer and perhaps the pacing could have been picked up a tad although even that may not have saved this third outing of Cooper and Lawrence. This is a 3 out of 5 stars, the movie does get a full star for the beauty of the locations, and is streaming on US Netflix at the moment. Overall a very disappointing offering from the duo who made Silver Linings Playbook sizzle and crackle.