Following huge acclaim in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper join forces again in this surprisingly plodding adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel Serena.
Set in 1920s North Carolina this is a period melodrama describing a story of greed, ambition and a slowly unravelling toxic marriage. George Pemberton (Cooper) closely monitors his self-made timber empire with the help of his newly arrived bride Serena (Lawrence). Serena’s early involvement in the business generates serious antagonism from George’s business partner (David Dencik). Meanwhile George’s ex-lover is visibly pregnant with his child leading Serena to state “Nothing that happened before even exists” giving us an early indication of the self-serving and ruthless nature of her character.
Following her arrival Serena immediately takes an active interest in the control of the business. We see her hunting rattlesnakes and saving a man’s life in the wilderness, and while admittedly, this was unusual for women in the 1920s, the ‘feisty woman in a man’s world’ theme fails to impress simply because it has been done to death so many times. Serena’s involvement in the business generates resentment which eventually puts it at risk, leading to the end of a somewhat steamy honeymoon period.
The real core of this movie is the passionate self-serving relationship between George and Serena, which flares into malevolence under pressure. While we are unsure of George’s nature before his marriage, under Serena’s influence the ruthless side of his character emerges (comparisons with Macbeth are inevitable). Lawrence does justice to the layers of Serena’s character and portrays her as increasingly unhinged, plagued with jealousy and insecurity, leading her to malice and violence. The toxic relationship begins to unravel leading to an inevitable reckoning.
The ever reliable Toby Jones gives a solid performance as the local Sheriff despite his Deep South accent flashing on and off like a faulty light bulb. Rhys Ifans also delivers a nice turn as a taciturn mountain man with psychic powers whose life is saved by Serena leading to a dog-like devotion, enabling her murderous plans. The film is beautifully shot and Danish director Susanne Bier digs deep looking for emotional resonance and depth, but the film as a whole somehow fails to gel. The symbolism is perhaps a little heavy handed as George develops a dangerous obsession with hunting a wild cat (now I wonder who that could represent!).
The film wrapped over two years ago and a belated release date has led to some murmurings over quality. Lawrence appeared in person at the film’s London Film Festival premiere where she encouraged movie goers to embrace the film with an open heart. However, despite, in Lawrence’s case in particular, accomplished performances from the stellar cast, this film simply fails to ignite.
In a nutshell: It’s not bad, it’s just not great. Worth a look, just don’t expect Silver Linings Playbook II.