Monday 11 January 2021

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

A drama and romance with psychological suspense undertones, Serena enjoys a ramshackle rural aesthetic and an ominously beautiful ambience, but catastrophically fails to build emotional resonance. 

In 1929, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) runs a timber operation in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. His key men include administrator Buchanan (David Dencik) and expert tracker Galloway (Rhys Ifans). The Great Depression is impacting the economy and plans for a national park supported by Sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) threaten George's business, but he vows to continue tree-cutting operations. In his spare time George enjoys big game hunting and tracks a mythical panther.

On a trip to Boston, George meets and quickly marries Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). Her family used to own a major timber operation in Colorado, and as a 12 year old she miraculously survived a devastating fire. Now she joins George at the Smoky Mountain site and proves herself a capable leader. But a series of mishaps and betrayals place a strain on the newlyweds, while the presence of George's previous lover Rachel (Ana Ularu) and her son inflames Serena's jealousy.

An adaptation of the 2008 novel by Ron Rash, Serena promises an evocative dramatic romance and a descent into tragic turmoil. But despite the presence of enigmatic stars Cooper and Lawrence and some chillingly beautiful cinematography courtesy of Morten Søborg, the film is undermined by a fundamentally unbalanced script by Christopher Kyle. Director Susanne Bier struggles to create any sort of rhythm or empathy, and the second half sinks into a calamitous swamp of flat mishaps.

At 110 minutes, Serena is overrun by an unrelenting checklist of events unsupported by character depth, and becomes a rare example of a film crying out to be longer. The dialogue is sparse, banal, or non-existent, stranding George and Serena into a marriage after barely exchanging 10 words. Scenes of passionate lovemaking fail to compensate, and the couple's central bond remains exceptionally brittle.

Other potentially interesting characters suffer worse. Galloway is teasingly presented as possessing mystical qualities before being abandoned into stock henchman territory, while Rachel barely says a meaningful word, her mere presence having to suffice as a cause for Serena's anger.

The morose music is maddeningly repetitive, as close-ups and hysterics are trotted out instead of substance. Serena promises much, but is quickly lost in the fog-shrouded forests.

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