Do not watch this film, I really need to say that right up front because the more I think about it, the more ridiculous it is, and the more cheated I feel by its inclusion in the Festival programme. Admittedly I did quite well this year, saw 6 and was only disappointed by 2 (so there will be 3 more good reviews in coming weeks), but with more than 250 films on offer you start to wonder how decisions are made on the selected films and whether the organisers have actually seen everything they recommend. No one could have thought Serena good enough, so its presence in a high arts festival can only be a cynical ploy to obtain associate credibility.
Serena is the story of timber plantation owners in North Carolina during the depression-era starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper playing Serena and George Pemberton. Among the multiple plots, George has fathered a child with a local woman prior to his marriage but doesn’t care until Serena loses their unborn baby and is rendered barren and barmy as a result. Serena also couldn’t care less until she discovers he’s been sending money to the mother and harbouring a photograph in a locked drawer. Running alongside this, George is involved in some kind of unexplained fraud and if anyone sees his account books he’ll go to prison, so first of all he shoots his long-term business partner, who incidentally hates Serena, on a hunting trip while everyone’s looking for a Panther, as you do.
But it’s not over, in a third plot the local mayor played by Toby Jones is trying to get Pemberton’s land for something and uses an insider named Campbell (Sean Harris) to steal the account books, although 5 minutes before Campbell was perfectly loyal and helping Pemberton cover-up the murder. Story number four is about another plantation worker, Galloway (Rhys Ifans) who comes under Serena’s thrall impressed by her ability to tame an eagle and cut into trees in the right spot – who wouldn’t fall in love with someone who could do that?! Anyway, she then uses him as some kind of one-armed hitman and sends him to murder Pemberton’s child, ex-lover and anyone else who stands in the way. And sorry to spoil this for you but as I’ve suggested you don’t watch it won’t matter, in the end they thankfully all die as did my own will to live.
These intermingled plots on their own are so ridiculous none of them could carry the film but with so much thrown in, it’s impossible to understand anything. The characters have almost no depth and sad to say with such a cast, even the acting is pretty flat. It must have had a significant budget but the town looks like a set and not where people actually might have lived, and the actors have nothing to do but look perturbed and moody, as I would if I’d found myself in the middle of this load of nonsense. The festival catalogue describes Serena herself as Pemberton’s ‘ruthless, brilliant wife’ and Lawrence’s performance as ‘a treat, playing Serena with an evil eye Bette Davis might have envied.’ So I was expecting Dynasty meets Giant timber farming epic with a manipulative and cold-hearted woman calling the shots, what I got was a series of weak plots centred around a character who just looked hurt for most of the film. This is no Bette Davis movie and that comparison is an insult. Do I have anything good to say about it….err… Jennifer Lawrence had nice hair throughout.
There are probably about 500 ways to improve this film, but I have two main suggestions; first Serena is bad, she arrives on the plantation immediately gets everyone’s backs up and starts throwing her weight around. George can’t see it because he’s besotted with her and allows her to take charge. Maybe she cheats, manipulates, fires people and even a murder if you must, but ultimately the plantation becomes a huge success putting pay to any local attempts to force them out. Option 2, Serena is bad, she does all of the above but George kills his partner or gets arrested for fraud, and Serena has to step in to run it without him. The twist is she never loved him and secretly works to get him arrested / hanged so she can run things alone. But sadly neither of these things happened and 102 minutes of film are wasted – and even worse that hundred minutes felt like three and countless people walked out!
Serena is a very bad film indeed and I urge you not to watch it. It’s going to get a general release because it has two respected big name stars and probably a lot of money to claw back, but don’t help them. Apparently this sat on a shelf for two years and there is no question at all that it should have stayed there rather than take the place of another movie at the London Film Festival. Three messages come out of this; 1) Organisers of London Film Festival please stop making all the films in the programme sound amazing, it just annoys us when they’re utter pap; 2) Toby Jones, Sean Harris, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Lawrence and even Bradley Cooper, you are all so much better than this so dust yourselves off and don’t look back; 3) to anyone planning to see this film, trust me just don’t, save your money and your time – put on your DVD of American Hustle instead, now that’s a great film!
Serena is scheduled to go on UK release on 24 October but really don’t bother. Look out for 3 further London Film Festival reviews on Cultural Capital in the coming weeks.