Our eponymous protagonist is performed by Hollywood heavyweight Jennifer Lawrence, who teams up yet again with regular collaborator Bradley Cooper, who plays her husband, George Pemberton. Set in Depression-era North Carolina – 1929, to be precise – we watch on as the rippling effects of the Wall Street crash filters through to the rest of the nation, leaving the pair’s timber empire in a somewhat precarious state. However George’s new, ambitious bride Serena is determined not to be considered a mere trophy wife, getting heavily involved in matters, and pushing out George’s right hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), while the sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) lurks, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Considering the two leading roles belong to a pair of actors who share such an inherent, palpable chemistry, it’s not something we truly get a sense for this in this particular endeavour. Even when they first meet, George takes one look at Serena and says, ‘Let’s get married’, and the next shot features them as husband and wife, together. We aren’t given the chance to see them flirt or get to know one another. Frustratingly, without any foreplay, so to speak, our emotional investment in their marriage is vastly non-existent from there on. It would be like Romeo and Juliet, minus the balcony sequence. Sadly this lack of detachment proves to be mightily detrimental to proceedings, as towards the latter stages it dawns on us that we simply don’t care – and thus devaluing the supposedly impactful finale.
That’s not to say that both Lawrence and Cooper should play similar, charming roles we’ve seen them in before, nor feel obliged to be playful and frivolous with one another, as that wouldn’t suit the tone of the piece – yet in this case they’ve both been stripped of the charisma that makes for such an enigmatic screen partnership. The performances are actually somewhat commendable, particularly by Lawrence, who tackles this strong-willed, impassioned role with a degree of conviction. Yet the character at hand simply isn’t nuanced enough to do the actress justice. Such a sentiment extends throughout the cast, with the likes of Rhys Ifans and Sean Harris also taking supporting roles, but in parts that while on the surface seem intriguing and idiosyncratic, have little development, as a film that boasts a plethora of rudimental sub-stories and incipient tangents we venture down; making for a rather unfulfilling experience.
It’s a shame as the narrative bears so much promise, with a protagonist that bears shades of Lady Macbeth. If handled in a more accomplished fashion, this could make for such mesmerising cinema, and yet Serena is anything but, as an emotionally disengaging piece that remains very flat throughout; one consistent, unwavering pace and tone, as we trudge slowly and desperately along.