Serena is based on a best-selling novel by Ron Rash, but in this case screenwriter Christopher Kyle has emphasized the most melodramatic aspects of the novel’s plot, turning Serena from a Lady Macbeth character–someone who urges her husband to commit ever greater transgressions to realize the ambitions he has already articulated–into someone more like crazy “Alex” in Fatal Attraction.
Too bad! The direction is elegant with gorgeous sets, costumes and cinematography capturing not just the trauma of the Great Depression, but also contemporary debates about long-term environmental degradation in the service of short-term profit. But all that is sacrificed in Act Three when it turns out Serena is just one more deranged and histrionic Hollywood Femme Fatale. (JLH: 3.5/5)
Review of Serena by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s third go-around takes them outside of the ballroom and seedy politics and inside a North Carolina lumber camp. The duo’s chemistry is the only element, however, that saves this long-awaited, Depression-era romance. (BKP: 2.5/5)
Based on the 2008 best-selling novel by Ron Rash, Serena tells the story of timber-operations worker “George Pemberton,” (Bradley Cooper) as he deals with personal and professional struggles. Already in a financial deficit, George faces the local government and their opposition of his work, wanting the Smoky Mountain trees to be protected as a national forest. To make matters worse, George wants nothing to do with the poor townswoman he’s gotten pregnant. But when tough beauty “Serena Shaw” (Jennifer Lawrence) – an orphan whose family died in a fire – comes galloping George’s way, he happily declares he wants to marry her and he does.
Without any exposition of their relationship, the film thrusts George and Serena into married life, chock full of sex scenes and love exclamations that do not feel realistic or earned. Although Cooper and Lawrence exude immense talent, especially together, their 1920s accents weave in and out of old-Hollywood and modern cadence. The Susanne Bier-directed film is doused in melodrama and violence, with each blood-stained plot point worse than the next. From eagle-taming and mythical panthers to throat-slitting and bastard children, any remaining simplicity vanishes from Serena.
The story of this husband-wife team is an unfortunate victim of distractions, from the dialogue and editing to the cliché costumes and stereotypes of “life on the frontier.” The main highlight is, of course, the lead actors. In a heartbreaking scene, as George holds distraught Serena in his arms, the close-up of Lawrence breaking down crying is powerful, moving, and impressive. The chemistry between the two is obvious, despite the material they are given. Although all three of their film roles have been vastly different, Cooper plays a good straight-man to Lawrence’s loony tune.
Had it not been for their familiar on-screen presence, the relationship between George and Serena would have felt completely forced. With the film’s production sandwiched in between their Oscar-nominated hits Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Cooper and Lawrence have proven that they are better off sticking with David O. Russell.
Review © Brigid K. Presecky (3/23/15)
Top Photo: Jennifer Lawrence stars as “Serena.”
Bottom Photo: Lawrence & Bradley Cooper as “Pemberton.”
Photo Credits: Larry D. Horricks courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Q: Does Serena pass the Bechdel Test?
There are no scenes between Serena and “Rachel,” (Ana Ularu) the mother of George Pemberton’s illegitimate child, nor does Rachel have any relationship–in the film–with the woman caring for the child while Rachel is at work. In the novel, on the other hand, Mrs. Jenkins is a fully present character and not just a dead body.
However, there are strong feminist themes throughout the film. George insists on his co-workers and local government thinking of Serena as his partner, not his wife. When she suggests importing an eagle (to thin out the rattle snake population), Serena insists on taming the animal herself – to prove a woman can do the job. With that being said, however, I cannot recommend Serena.