“It’s a hard place this world can be. No wonder a baby cries coming in to it. Tears from the start.”
Jennifer Lawrence is possibly the biggest female star in Hollywood at the moment. Bradley Copper’s right up there on the A-list as well. And, they’ve made two hugely successful movies together already in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. So to assume another team up would be something audiences want to see seems reasonable. Which is why I should have heard a lot more alarm bells when I first became aware of Serena. A Lawrence / Cooper joint that was made a couple of years ago, kept on a shelf, then barley released now with a whimper. But, I liked the source book and I like the stars, so I ignored those warning signs and went in with hopes high.
It’s the Great Depression and George Pemberton (Cooper) is doing his best to chop down every single tree in North Carolina before the government seizes his land for the then-new national parks project. In Boston for some political glad handing, he meets Serena (Lawrence), a woman who has made it in the man’s world of logging and timber. Immediately married, they return to North Carolina where a young employee of Pemberton’s (Ana Ularu as Rachel) has given birth to his love child. Serena makes it clear that Pemberton’s past is no concern of hers, unless it in anyway gets in the way of her plans for their future.
A constant thorn in Pemberton’s side is the local Sherriff, McDowell (Toby Jones). The one incorruptible man in the entire movie, he knows the Pembertons will stop at nothing, including murder, to get their way. The only problem is, he needs to prove it before Rachel and her infant son are added to the list of victims.
I know I shouldn’t compare a movie to the book that inspired it, they’re two completely different things. But it’s really hard not to with Serena. Maybe seeing it without having read the book would make it a better movie, but with the hindsight of Ron Rash’s novel, all I could see was how wrong the movie got almost everything. I know any novel is going to have to be cut down for its story to fit into a couple of hours of screen time. And sometimes entire characters and sub plots are lost. The problem with Serena is, it tries to keep everything by just skimming over everything but the broadest strokes.
And when it changes characters, it changes them so completely from the novel that the story barely holds together or makes sense when it does stay faithful. Serena is cold, and ruthless and basically a sociopath, but the film version never really develops her character enough to earn those big moments of sociopathic ruthlessness. Pemberton is weak and sad and easily lead by his new wife. But the movie tries to give him real moments of redemption. Moments that the book version of Pemberton never earns or achieves.
Serena is a collection of great actors, working with a great story being told by a director who has a pretty great visual style. Yet for all that, pretty much nothing about Serena works.