Serena is constantly haunted by reminders of better films. The softly twanging guitar music and smoky mountain cinematography echo Brokeback Mountain, and the central presence of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence creates an obvious link with Silver Linings Playbook. But while that film was about the slow development of a troubled relationship over time, Serena is entirely different; the relationship portrayed is still troubled, but – like the film as a whole – everything feels a bit rushed and awkward, and we don’t care about the main characters nearly as much.
Ambitious timber tycoon George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) meets Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) near the film’s beginning, where they go from strangers to happily married in the space of about five hurried minutes. Pemberton chases after her on a horse, tells her “We should be married”, she laughs and rides off, then there’s a brief montage of them having sex and getting out of a car together and that’s that. Screenwriter Christopher Kyle may be trying to say something about their impulsivity as characters, but really the result is more patchy than it is breathless.
The rest of Serena bumbles on in much the same awkward way. Pemberton and Serena’s relationship starts off looking like a perfect, all-conquering match made in heaven, but then cracks start to form as other characters get ticked off with them and various things go wrong with their dream of building up a logging empire. It’s a bit predictable and the film makes it hard to empathise with anyone. Different people and different scenes flash across the screen without any real linearity and we don’t get properly acquainted with the characters; the whole thing is a jigsaw puzzle of moments that don’t quite fit together, which means that dramatic sequences and key points in the script often feel too much like transparent plot devices.
That being said, there are positives. The entire cast give strong performances (Jennifer Lawrence does a particularly great job at showing her character’s ruthlessness and vulnerability in equal measures), the cinematography is beautiful throughout and the music is spot on, and there are a few moments of tension and a couple of genuinely moving sequences. The right parts are there somewhere, but – like Pemberton and Serena’s fragile relationship – the whole is just a bit rickety, and in the end nothing quite fits together.