Serena Dir. Susanne Bier

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Styles: melodrama, soap opera
Others: Sometimes a Great Notion, Things We Lost in the Fire,

“Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

The window dressing of Serena is immediate. The Smokey Mountains play home to the logging camp that will often house the players. George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is our patriarch; young but wizened as an entrepreneur fighting against the financial tides in the midst of the Great Depression. His wife, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), is a striking blonde, first met within the comfortable confines of privilege. Both of their lives, tumultuous prior to their quick courtship, become a raging gulf of unfortunate circumstance and self-destruction.

The curtain rises on this soap opera like it did with so many before it, and much like these ancestral kin, Serena must succeed on the passion and chemistry of its two fiery leads, the supporting cast, and how they sell the wooden set pieces they call home. The film is heavy on the prime time scandal and low on the heart and substance: there’s a child out of wedlock, a bipolar female lead, a shadowy figure, infighting and moral decay set against a backwoods paradise being destroyed by suffocating sophistication.

Ultimately, Serena is little more than a two hour soap — one that is painstakingly middling, lacking the patience and storytelling of its lesser television cousin. Cooper and Lawrence leave their previous chemistry in the trailer, their blossoming romance as George and Serena nothing but poor, speedy edits of forced love making. The immediate sourness between Lawrence’s Serena and David Dencik’s Buchanan — George’s business partner — is thrust upon the story with little innuendo to guide the root of the problem. Galloway (Rhys Ifans) is as close as this film gets in creating a layered character study in cyclical criminality, but by the point his duality is revealed, your interest has disappeared to the back lot.

Director Susanne Bier does set a grand stage for all of this to unfurl. The Smokey Mountains are a vast and beautiful playground. She ties the majesty of their existence to the destruction of the logging camp and the people within its shabby confines. Bier appoints Sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) as the voice of conservation, as he tries to uncover the maligned business practices of the Pembertons and protect the land from which they seek to profit. But much like the rest of her cast of characters, he’s half-assed and barely formed.

So, much like the genre that precedes it, Serena is nothing more than lavish scenery fit for the cast to chew. The emotions run high but shallow, the backdrop little more than window dressing. Serena does little to tie the corruption of the Great Depression to modern excess, and when it tries to do so it ends up falling flat in the mountainous clay. Had this starred Anthony Geary and Genie Francis, there may have been some hope. As it stands, Serena exposes Cooper and Lawrence’s range and proves that fantastic cinematography is not enough to turn the world into a stage fit for Olivia Pope.

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