Director: Susanne Bier.
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, Ana Ularu.
|"To be honest, dear, I'm just as unimpressed by this shit as you are."|
Cooper and Lawrence reuniting for the third time, Academy Award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier at the helm, with Ron Rash's best-selling novel as the source material - what could possibly go wrong?
The answer is "the script".
Set in 1929, the titular Serena is a headstrong yet haunted young woman (brought to life by Lawrence with her usual skill) who marries fledgling timber baron George Pemberton (Cooper) and quickly asserts herself as his business partner.
But their logging company's niche in Carolina's Smoky Mountains is under threat from some progressive locals keen to establish a national park, while their marriage has to deal with the bastard child Pemberton fathered just prior to meeting and marrying Serena.
There are subplots aplenty here as well - Pemberton's quest to hunt a panther, his relationship with his off-sider Buchanan (Dencik), the dangers of logging (shown occasionally in graphic detail), the unnecessary attentions of the local sheriff (Jones) - but so many of the film's ideas are either rushed, undercooked or overdone.
For example, the whirlwind romance between Serena and Pemberton is so whirlwind, more time is spent later in the film dedicated to Pemberton bathing Serena than is actually spent on showing us how and why they fell in love.
Then there's the mysterious figure of Galloway (Ifans), a tracker hired to help Pemberton in his quest to kill a panther. The role of Galloway and the panther in the story are as idiotic as Pemberton's passion for killing the endangered feline.
I've not read Rash's book, but reading the way reviewers describe it, it seems like a completely different story, one filled with menace, strong themes and equally strong characters (who sound like an unlikeable pack of mongrels). None of that comes through in the film. The characters are blandly likeable despite doing terrible things, there is a real lack of tension or menace even as the movie builds to its bloody climax, and so many motifs go unexplored.
The film leaves the impression of being either a novel mangled in the screenwriting process or a film interfered with in the editing process (there are even a couple of scenes that feel like they are in the wrong place, like they were forgotten about and thrown in at the wrong moment).
The ending is fairly bonkers too, as if it jetted in from another film - at one point a character actually says "you've got 24 hours before I call the judge" and suddenly you feel like you're in an '80s cop movie instead of a drama set in 1929.
Lawrence, Cooper, Jones, Dencik and Ifans do their best and are the saving grace of the film, particularly the lead couple, even if Cooper does occasionally seem like he's channelling Pacino or De Niro rather than trying to do his own thing.
The film also looks gorgeous, with the Czech Republic standing in for the logging towns of North Caroline, and there are a couple of nice moments where Bier lets a look tell a thousand words.
So much goes begging given the talent on offer here but instead we're left with a largely forgettable melodrama based on a book that sounds like it would be far more enjoyable.