Film Review: Serena

Serena doesn’t work on almost any level, as the filmmakers let down their stars and an interesting source material.

One of the biggest problems with Serena is that its title almost doesn’t make sense. The title character is regulated to barely being a supporting character. The movie version of this story is firmly about her husband and the struggles he’s created in this small logging community. Then why is the film called Serena? If you had read the book (I didn’t, but I have my wife who did) the source material earns that title and tells a far more interesting story than the relatively tame one we get here. The book sounded like a crazy and twisted take on the historical drama, but the screenwriters defanged it and gave us this slightly odd drama instead.

Maybe the story would have played better in the shape they gave us if the filmmaking would have been of a certain quality, but it’s as big a mess as the adaptation. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that was so poorly edited together. For every beautiful Smoky Mountain vista used for transitions, there are five or six awkward cuts jarring loose the flow of the film. The photography is also just as all over the place, as for every well constructed shot there is another few that are just blandly thrown together in the cabins of the town. There just seemed to be no vision, no single hand guiding this film, which might be the case with how long this film took to come out. The script is also so sub-par that even a group of good to great actors at the film’s core couldn’t save the rough dialogue. The plotting and character development is also just a mess, with characters acting out of necessity of plot rather than being a rational human being for the last half of the film. Yeah, Serena was crazy in the source material, but the movie paints her as a reasonable woman for the majority of the film before turning that on its head when necessary. You can’t have it both ways without earning it.

Everyone’s favorite on screen duo of the moment, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, play the lead couple and while they have been far better in other work as of late, I was shocked they come out of this not looking like a disaster. Cooper’s accent is a little wonky, but he is a fine leading man, getting to play a lot of shades of grey. Lawrence is also good in some intense moments, but the aforementioned script failures betray her in the end. Rhys Ifans is sadly given a too one dimensional role, in a part that could have been extra creepy and really something to play with. Toby Jones and Dave Dencik also get pretty thankless roles, with little to nothing to do. Those guys haven’t had great parts since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Serena is a mess. While it isn’t quite a disaster, it feels like a missed opportunity for two such likable stars as Cooper and Lawrence. The characters they play are interesting on paper, but Susanne Bier’s direction feels absent while the film never feels cohesive. Fans of the stars might feel like they should check Serena out of morbid curiosity, but Lawrence and Cooper are both just fine in it; nothing terrible to see here. We want to seem them be as great as they can be every time out and this seems to have been a waste of time for both them and the viewer.

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