Directed by: Susanne Bier; Runtime: 109 minutes
The stealthy, no-fanfare handling of Serena's release is a curious thing, given that it marked the second pairing of audience darlings Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in a decorated period drama. After all, few things should draw more attention than the reunion of recent Academy Award-nominated actors who also hallmark several high-grossing franchises, especially if they carry the kind of chemistry Lawrence and Cooper exhibited in Silver Linings Playbook. Aside from a few production stills, very little surfaced about this film-to-screen adaptation that In a Better World director Susanne Bier took over from another bigwig director-actor duo,. boding poorly for the film as it continued to stay away from the public eye during the release of American Hustle. Turns out, there was a reason the folks responsible for Serena weren't rushing to unveil its take on Ron Rash's novel: it's an emotionally wooden and absurd mess that doesn't even benefit from the typically reliable charisma of its marquee performers.
Alexander writer Christopher Kyle whittles down the Depression-era drama of Rash's popular book of the same name, centered on a lumber tycoon, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), who's recently wed a beautiful socialite, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), with a difficult past and a tough-to-pursue attitude. Their hasty romance and Serena's experience in the industry leads to a shake-up of the way things are done back home in Pemberton's North Carolinian lumber business, where she becomes just as much of a confidant and adviser to George as she does his wife. Soon, the problems associated with the businesses' affairs -- the government's interest in the timber property, the causalities incurred due to the work's tough conditions, the under-the-table dealings and the sketchy ledgers -- becomes an endeavor for the both of them to take on, while also trying to start a family and coping with George's checkered history with the locals. It's a tough racket, one that becomes even tougher to endure as their personal and professional lives test their trust in one another.
Serena never really recovers from the abruptness of the origin of the Pembertons' relationship, tossing together George and Serena without comprehending much of anything about their characters and expecting attractively-photographed shots of their longing gazes and carnal trysts to get the job done. Perhaps that would've worked better had Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence displayed the same on-screen rapport of their previous cinematic encounter, but little of that emerges in the numerous sex scenes and lengthy close-ups on their over-the-top interactions with one another. Frankly, neither of them feels comfortable in the Depression-era setting, appearing almost anachronistic through Cooper's indistinct accent and Lawrence's bottled-up quirkiness. Whether the Pembertons were to be set up for triumph or tragedy, their performances keep the audience at a safe distance from the depth of the their personalities, resulting in shallow, soapy conversations about their mutual dedication and benchmarks.
The only stroke of dramatic interest comes in Serena's interaction with the lumber business, how she imparts her partial authority and flexes her knowledge among a bunch of rough-and-tumble loggers. Despite fine cinematography from Valhalla Rising's Morten Soborg and amply organic production design to accentuate the environment around her, Director Bier's grasp on the events that transpire around Serena's interference -- both by her hand and in her persuasion over George -- is tenuous at its best, hacking away at sensible storytelling with a number of crackpot contrivances that lack in dramatic validity. Severed limbs, brushed-off hunting accidents, and illegitimate children concoct a connection of events intended to be a vivid glimpse at '30s gristle; instead, however, it ends up being the stuff of overwrought made-for-TV histrionics, visibly squandering its star power on a halfhearted cautionary tale about the pitfalls of ambition, about characters with whom the film doesn't appropriately make us give a whiff about.
That detachment from the period drama in Serena turns the shift in tone during its rambunctious final act into a real struggle, twisting the enterprising melodrama of the Pemberton timber machine into a warped thriller hinged on postpartum psychosis and backwater prophesying. Even with some added urgency in Jennifer Lawrence's performance as her character flares up out of control, everything at work here comes across as a rather preposterous attempt at Shakespearean cataclysm, with only vague notions about what it'd like to convey about George's waning grasp on his business and the demons of his past. Frankly, it's hard to find much of anything to value in the acrimonious climax to the Pemberton legacy, rewarding neither on the basis of half-baked suspense nor its mucky emotional tension. After leaving such a decidedly hollowed-out impression in what should be an expressively brawny historical epic featuring two of the hottest-burning embers in Hollywood right now, there's actually little surprise in such a piece of work being left alone to burn out into obscurity.
For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 6/05/2015