Netflix UK film review: Serena
Ivan Radford | On 23, Feb 2015
Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper
Watch Serena online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play / BFI Player
Serena waltzes onto DVD and VOD this week, the morning after the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards. Despite starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, though, the movie was nowhere in sight.
Susanne Bier’s sweeping period drama sees the pair at the top of their game. Lawrence delivers her most adult performance to date as Serena, a poor-born woman with rich ambitions. We first see her riding a horse with imperious grace, glowing blonde hair and pristine red lipstick. It’s not hard to imagine her galloping straight out of classic Hollywood. It’s certainly enough to make an impression upon George Pemberton (Cooper), a timber entrepreneur with ambitions of his own; ambitions that are just enough to keep his finances in order.
He swiftly rides after her and proposes. She says yes. One sex scene later and she’s ordering employees around like he is. Another sex scene later and he’s finding himself up against the local sheriff (Toby Jones), who doesn’t take kindly to them chopping down the woods. Yet another sex scene later and she’s finding out that he’s already got a child by another woman. There are a lot of sex scenes. But rather than sweep you up in the steamy emotion of it all, their inevitably doomed marriage – and its constant carnal displays – leaves you feeling oddly cold.
Director Susanne Bier is an expert at drawing natural turns from her talent and here is no exception: while Lawrence has skewed older before, as a widow in Silver Linings Playbook, Serena’s crazed jealousy gives her real meat to sink her teeth into, like one of the rumoured panthers that George is obsessed with tracking down. Cooper has less to do, but enjoys soaking up the 1920s vibe, from his hat to his grimy face, complete with hopeful smile.
The script, though, saddles them both with leaden dialogue, then throws unsubtle animal metaphors at the screen like an eager baboon. Even though the North Carolina hills look the part, all misty skies and atmospheric nightfalls, the off-key writing and clanging portents mean that events never quite convince. Already balanced on the knife-edge of melodrama, that tinny quality is enough to tip Serena just into absurd territory – especially as it morphs from Gone with the Wind to a rural remake of Macbeth.
It’s like someone took a black-and-white movie and painted colour over-the-top, making things slightly too garish. And so, when people’s limbs are chopped off or Rhys Ifans’ villainous hunter arrives, you find yourself tittering instead of gasping. No matter how hard the cast and crew try, Serena remains strangely inert, right up until the preposterous finale. Even the prospect of another sex scene isn’t enough to spark a fire of interest.
Serena is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.