A movie is a tangled mass of hundreds of variables. Even those that seem like a sure bet- acclaimed source material, tried-and-tested pairing of A-list actors, Oscar-winning director- can end up being an utter disappointment. In the curious case of Serena, a film riddled with problems, signs of trouble arose when it appeared that no distributor was willing to touch it. Production on Serena finished in 2012; yet it limped along for nearly two years, unseen, before finally clawing its way into the London Film Festival. This is what sparked my curiosity- how could a period drama, once tipped for awards-season success, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper- not be snapped up right away? What could have gone so horribly wrong?
The interesting thing to note with Serena is that it’s not a complete disaster- it has its problems, sure, but I still found it to be, at least for some of that bloated runtime, an engaging romantic drama. Lawrence’s titular performance, while not her best work, is still convincing, if slightly patchy. It is Cooper who turns in wooden, uncharacteristically lazy work. The pair still have the chemistry that worked so well in Silver Linings Playlist, but some of that sharpness has been lost along the way.
It is hard to like, or even pity, any of the characters we meet in Serena’s depression-era logging camp. Serena herself is complex, outspoken, charismatic- your typical Jennifer Lawrence character reincarnated into the early 1930s. She is an orphan, after losing her entire family in a terrible accident. She is cool, with her bleached tresses and icy gaze, and Cooper’s George Pemberton tells her that he wants to marry her on their first meeting. This film tries so hard to make Serena intriguing that ultimately the audience loses all interest, or in the case of the audience at LFF, burst into laughter. That’s right, some moments in Serena are so unintentionally ridiculous that the audience, on several occasions, couldn’t help but laugh.
The film’s frequent use of ham-fisted metaphors is another problem to attribute to the script. Serena is likened to a white horse, then an eagle. Then a wildcat. Serena exhausts itself by trying to be profound when all it really needed was to find a rhythm. The editing and the script are disjointed, rushed in places, stretched out in others. Serena is a film that cannot decide what it wants to be. In parts, I felt truly gripped by Serena. Lawrence was at least partially captivating, and the plot, although a slow burn, was periodically thrilling. Here lies Serena’s fatal problem- with so many promising variables, it is not enough to be only periodically thrilling, and frequently exasperating. Serena is as inconsistent as they come.