Overview: A baron and his wife struggle to maintain a timber business amidst the Great Depression, while external factors drive their marriage to violence and insanity. StudioCanal; 2015; Rated R; 109 Minutes.
A Stellar Set-up: The third coupling of recent powerhouse film pairing Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence sees the two actors take on a period piece with epic ambitions in a story adapted from a novel by celebrated writer Ron Rash. The opening shots move with a stunning adoration of the backwoods landscape. When Lawrence takes the screen as the titular character, she is dolled up in radiant emulation of earlier Hollywood starlets, taking position amongst rough and tumble men with a feminist certainty. With all of these pieces in place, it’s tough to imagine how the formula might fail, but, oh boy, does Serena earn this bad review.
How it Fails: From its clumsy set up, to its impatient rush to marriage, to its arbitrary outbursts of violence, Serena races through events to reach its key moments, moments of betrayal and deceit, without bothering to witness its characters in any simpler or more compassionate context. As an audience, we’re never given the time to observe, connect with, and understand Pemberton (Cooper) and Serena. As Sheriff McDowell and Galloway, normally rock solid supporting actors Toby Jones and Rhys Ifans are generic bumpers placed to move the action without it having to earn its progress. Subplots (namely, the entire environmental and economic concern for Pemberton’s business and industry) are treated as confused formalities of the adaptation. Because Director Susanne Bier and Screenwriter Christopher Kyle obsess over the central plot and disregard its players, there’s a distinct insincerity to the whole exercise, leaving Serena’s transformation from powerful female to maddened Appalachian Lady Macbeth feeling like a cheap character sketch of a trope that’s built from far better works. With each scene, Bier chops down her film’s chances of success as quickly and efficiently as her extras remove the trees from the mountainside.
Serena: I’m quite certain most viewers and critics will find Serena to be a disappointing movie experience. I’m equally certain many will add to their criticisms an exclusionary stipulation to protect Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. There’s no question that Lawrence’s amazing and young career has earned her the benefit of the doubt in reasonable circumstances, but any claim that she does an impressive job in Serena — or even any attempt to say that she does the best with what she is given– will be a dishonest one. Her acting is uncertain in its strongest moments and strained, confusing, and deflated at its worst. While Cooper, who is coming off one of the best performances of 2014, is equally uninspired, Serena is the character who provides the richest opportunity to add quality through performance, but the performer fails to capitalize and thus shares the blame here. In a way, that may end up being a blessing for Serena: If this movie isn’t remembered for being Lawrence’s worst performance, it won’t be remembered for anything.