No American actor in recent memory has seen a career ascend as high and as quickly as Jennifer Lawrence. Five years ago, almost nobody knew her name. Today, she headlines the biggest franchise in Hollywood, is an essential part of another major film series and has become the youngest female actor to earn three Oscar nominations for acting. However, not all of her career choices can be winners, as Lawrence has given her first forgettable performance since becoming America’s movie sweetheart, in a film that is just as unremarkable: Suzanne Bier’s long-delayed period romance Serena.
For the third time in three years, Lawrence unites with Bradley Cooper, although the chemistry that ignited on Silver Linings Playbook is mostly chilled here. He plays George Pemberton, a logger trying to turn a profit as the Roaring Twenties dive into the Great Depression. Living in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, he yearns to expand his company, go hunting for panthers on the weekend and set up shop in Brazil once he has reached a certain margin of success. He finds both a business partner and a wife in the title character, played by Lawrence. It takes only a short gallop into the forest and a couple of forced one-liners atop horseback before George whisks out a wedding proposal. After a few scenes flicker by and fade out within a couple of minutes, George and Serena are happily married and bound together by a passion for the timber business.
From there, Serena falters because of the storytelling, which is not just tedious but lacks surprise and intrigue. The characters are thin and their motivations are obvious. Quick shots of supporting characters gazing at George and Serena near the start tell us all we need to know about how these personal relationships will escalate. In one of these encounters, Serena gets a cold stare from a pregnant woman, Rachel (Ana Ularu). Alas, this foreshadows the eventual romantic love triangle that will tear at the fabric of George and Serena’s marriage.
Even though she is best known as the Girl on Fire in the Hunger Games franchise and as the firecracker that lit up two David O. Russell comedies, Lawrence’s latest performance goes up in flames. She often offers little more than a vacant stare and a pouty voice during her line readings. You can see her trying to find the gusto she often grasps in her bold performances, but she gets too little to work with here.
Cooper is better off as George, even though the follies of the character’s business dealings rarely amount to much change. The accidents that besiege his business throughout the story do not create much conflict beyond the men imperiled in the incidents. Near the beginning, he explains his desire to be a man of the people, creating opportunities for the beleaguered townspeople. Later, there is some conversation between George and some locals looking to establish a park, which leads to a bit of political rabble-rousing – except not much of it is rousing.
The best of the film’s ensemble is Rhys Ifans, who plays the gruff Galloway. With a beard, brown hat and brooding demeanor, he plays the steely rogue with quiet tension but a dominating presence. Sadly, the actions of this wild card become less surprising as the conflict escalates. (The final, violent showdown with Galloway is shoddily framed, muddy to the point of incoherence.)
In Christopher Kyle’s screenplay, all goes according to plan, which is the problem. Since it is so easy to telegraph what will happen in the coming scene, there is minimal suspense. It is rarely a good thing to know exactly what the characters are going to do before they know it themselves. (Kyle is also the scribe behind Alexander and The Weight of Water, two poor films from potent directors.)
Another fault of Kyle’s screenplay is the lack of rooting interest in the main couple. About halfway through Serena, George commits a selfish crime that he manages to get away with, although it is difficult to summon much sympathy toward him from this scene forward. Meanwhile, despite her sassy entrances and cravings for deep love and power near the start, Serena slowly turns into a complaining shrew that submits to her situation rather than rises above it. It is hard to see on the screen how these characters, which come from a novel by Ron Rash, could invest readers.
On the bright side, the film looks great. Bier shot it on a few sets in the Czech Republic, but the views of the wilderness, tinted in deep blue, evoke a sadness and misery that the performances struggle to express. Serena, whose backstory gets a clunky explanation early in the film, wants to repress the memories of her old life and of a perished family. In one of the only scenes worthy of an Oscar winner, Lawrence burrows deeply into her character’s memories, arrested by one of her actions many years ago and the regret she still lives with.
There is a gripping love story trying to get out of Serena, yet mediocre performances, tedious pacing and pedestrian screenwriting dilute the story’s intended emotional impact. Despite the pedigree of the lead actors and the Oscar-winning director, there is a reason why the film is getting a buried theatrical release.