The Wall Street Crash of 1929 sent ripples out across the world sending Western industrialised countries into a freefall that marked the beginning of the Great Depression. The tale of Serena is set against the Crash, not among the bodies on the Wall Street pavements but in another environment where the rich and the poor lived side by side; one trying to eke out a living, the other preying on the desperate; the timber rich forests of North Carolina.
Serena is the story of George Pemberton, Bradley Cooper, a timber tycoon who opposes plans to turn his North Carolina logging forest into national park. One of the better scenes of the film occurs early on when George attends a meeting with campaigners for the national park; while hiding behind his shield of the workers’ right to work, Pemberton is openly sneering of the government and anybody who thinks they can stymie his greatness. The local sheriff dissects Pemberton’s claim of magnanimity for what it is, self-interest. This moment galvanises the fact that Pemberton is not a character to be cheered for but, presumably, pitied.
His wife Serena, Jennifer Lawrence, is another story altogether. Rather than pity the only thing that can be felt for Serena is scorn. Cold, as fake as her platinum blond hair, and utterly contemptible of anything and everything outside of her relationship with George, Serena is a vacuous and unbelievable character that is the result of a poorly written script and some truly awful directing choices.
It is clear what the filmmakers were trying to do; a Shakespearean tragedy with hints of Othello and Romeo and Juliet mixed with the histories set against The Great Depression in a unique setting, transform strong and steely feminist Serena into a vicious femme fatale, George from hunter to hunted. Unfortunately a tragedy requires the characters to have some redeeming qualities, so the audience will want to root for them and Serena’s cast of misfits has none of those things.
For a relationship that should carry the emotional weight of the film the Pemberton’s romance is built upon matchsticks; after glimpsing Serena show riding George is so enthralled that he rides after her, his second words to her; ‘I think we should be married’. From this utterly fantastical union comes some very bad sex scenes and the arrival of Serena to the timber towns of North Carolina. Early on we learn that George has fathered a child with a young woman in his employ, a truth to which the newly arrived Serena gives no feminine sympathy, not even jealousy, she simply chooses to ignore the screaming baby and impoverished mother in the pursuit of her own well-being.
The hype that the filmmakers are hoping will fill seats is the reunion of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence after their critical and commercial success with 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. For that performance Lawrence grabbed herself an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her performance in Serena she is more deserving of a Golden Raspberry. It is remarkable just how bad Lawrence is in Serena. Equally confounding is the lack of chemistry between the leads, a chemistry that has been proven in the past now comes across about as sexy as geriatric siblings rolling around on white sheets in the crepuscular light, their moans of passion accompanied by a stirring score of strings.
The soundtrack is equally reprehensible, sounding like it was put together by a high school student studying music 101, all the right notes are there but the score as a whole feels jarring in its blandness; like the film’s script the score can be predicted note for note.
The main protagonists of Serena are ripped straight out of a bad Ayn Rand novel (is that a tautology?). Selfish adherents to the doctrine of their personal happiness at any cost, the only joy that can be had from this dull and utterly unlikeable film is the inevitable chaos that ensues when things don’t go as planned for the spoiled and horrid pair who leave nothing but death and destruction in the path of their own vanity, and even that is far too small a reward for the hundred and ten minutes you are forced to endure with this pair.