Film Review: Serena [BFI London Film Festival 2014]

on Thursday, October 23, 2014
'Serena' (UK Release: 24 Oct '14) // Words: Lauren Johnson-Ginn

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper team up again in this atmospheric drama from director Susanne Bier, bringing their much-discussed on-screen chemistry to a sombre tale of cutthroat Depression-era industry and turbulent romance. Adapted from Ron Rash’s best-selling 2008 novel of the same name, 'Serena' follows the rise of George Pemberton’s (Bradley Cooper) North Carolina timber empire.

Following a whirlwind courtship, George and Serena make a formidable married couple. Lawrence’s character, Serena, is an unconventional woman for her time – strong, independent and ruthless, she quickly establishes herself as the “brains behind the operation” within George’s business, provoking the jealous ire of partner Buchanan (David Dencik) in the process.

Buchanan isn’t the only threat, either - with the local council making constant grabs for their land, and the awkward matter of George’s illegitimate baby son to grapple with, the Pembertons’ state of wedded bliss begins to look increasingly precarious.

With plenty of intriguing moral ambiguities, the story has a touch of Shakespeare’s 'Macbeth' – or even Brian De Palma’s 'Scarface' – about it, and Bier depicts this grubby world of greed and corruption with an assured hand, aided by an exceptional cast of character actors including Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris and Toby Jones.

It’s a shame though, that at times the script fails to make the most of its talented cast – perhaps as a result of overzealous trimming in the adaptation or editing process. The kindling of romance between George and Serena, for example, is given a cursory Disney-style treatment (boy meets girl, couple of gratuitous sex scenes, then boom – cut to marriage) that doesn’t allow for any depth or credible exploration of their early relationship. (And even Disney doesn’t really do that anymore, or at least not without a massive ironic wink.) It’s a frustrating lost opportunity to capitalise on the natural ease, humour and warmth that Cooper and Lawrence brought to the screen in David O Russell’s 'Silver Linings Playbook'.

Ultimately, the quality of the cast is what makes ‘Serena’ a generally enjoyable watch – but you do get the niggling sense that it could’ve been so much better with just a little more narrative finesse.


'Serena' had its UK premiere at the 58th BFI London Film Festival, and is out on general release in the UK through STUDIOCANAL on 24th October.

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