The fact that Serena has been shelved for the last couple of years is no surprise to anyone who has been following the film. The film, which was made between films Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle and stars, you guessed it, the dynamic duo of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Why is a film that was made over two years ago and stars two powerhouse names in Hollywood just now seeing the light of day, you ask? Well, there are several reasons, many you’ll read below, but the primary reason being this: director Susanne Bier has an interesting story at her hands, but one that unravels so quickly that we’re only left to wonder where it all went wrong.
George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a businessman, pure and simple. He’s in the lumber industry, but faces a debt crises, as well as conflict between his lumber business and North Carolina’s insistence on creating a national park on the land. There’s something about a land he owns in Brazil being collateral, or some other business talk, but then enters Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence). Beautiful, powerful, and an equal partner in Pemberton’s business, she pretty much takes over the business side. Their story isn’t so much a love story as it is a staccato telling of Serena’s influence on an already shady Pemberton, and also of how Serena slowly begins to unravel after she finds out she can’t give Pemberton any children. This becomes especially complicated once Pemberton’s infant son, the baby’s mother (Ana Ularu) being Pemberton’s former maid, darkens their lives with his unintentional presence.
I wanted to really like this movie. The production value, the costumes, and the setting are all beautifully done. The cinematography is damp and gray, with a constant smoky value to it that one can easily appreciate. However, the couple’s relationship feels abrupt, the execution and pacing are rough, and the plot heavy handed and never given enough time to bloom. Honestly, and it’s not quite clear if it’s the script or the jagged editing in certain places, but the film pretty much falls apart right after Pemberton and Serena meet. He sees her from across a field and immediately they marry. The scenes directly after are very badly edited. It’s clear what’s going on (a montage of George and Serena’s love), but Bier has a hard time trying to keep it running smoothly and it ends up looking like a botched attempt at a romantic time. The scenes are far too short and jumbled to really make anything of them.
From then on, the film falls flat and doesn’t really go anywhere from there. We watch as the two characters struggle with different, as well as the same, things, but their battles don’t have a realistic buildup, nor is the audience left caring about what they’re going through. Cooper’s character especially looks like he doesn’t have all that much to do and he falls on the side of boring, his inner conflict very wishy washy. Lawrence has a bit more to do, but the development of her character falls short and we don’t completely understand her journey from beginning to end. Lawrence starts off a bit mysterious, a bit shady, if you will, and her need to keep Cooper’s Pemberton in her sights and to herself becomes apparent, but isn’t genuine in the way it’s portrayed. Both characters aren’t very three-dimensional, and the script doesn’t help their sympathies with the audience very much, nor are they completely understood.
Rhys Ifans, who plays the convict Galloway, develops a rapport with Serena, but the reasons behind it aren’t exactly coherent. There are just a lot of things happening in Serena, but it doesn’t weave itself together to create a clear story and character path. The plot drives the characters instead of the other way around, and the editing creates a very choppy film in which we’re left grasping at straws in order to fully comprehend the film we’re seeing. In the end, Bier’s vision falls flat and is hard to get through. It doesn’t develop properly and falls extremely flat. Besides the cinematography, the film doesn’t really have much going for it. Even Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s performances suffer under the hand of the directing and bloated story.