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Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // June 9, 2015
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted June 3, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The stealthy, no-fanfare handling of Serena's release is a curious thing, given that it marked the second pairing of audience darlings Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in a decorated period drama. After all, few things should draw more attention than the reunion of recent Academy Award-nominated actors who also hallmark several high-grossing franchises, especially if they carry the kind of chemistry Lawrence and Cooper exhibited in Silver Linings Playbook. Aside from a few production stills, very little surfaced about this film-to-screen adaptation that In a Better World director Susanne Bier took over from another bigwig director-actor duo, boding poorly for the film as it continued to stay away from the public eye during the release of American Hustle. Turns out, there was a reason the folks responsible for Serena weren't rushing to unveil its take on Ron Rash's novel: it's an emotionally wooden and absurd mess that doesn't even benefit from the typically reliable charisma of its marquee performers.

Alexander writer Christopher Kyle whittles down the Depression-era drama of Rash's popular book of the same name, centered on a lumber tycoon, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), who's recently wed a beautiful socialite, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), with a difficult past and a tough-to-pursue attitude. Their hasty romance and Serena's experience in the industry leads to a shake-up of the way things are done back home in Pemberton's North Carolinian lumber business, where she becomes just as much of a confidant and adviser to George as she does his wife. Soon, the problems associated with the businesses' affairs -- the government's interest in the timber property, the causalities incurred due to the work's tough conditions, the under-the-table dealings and the sketchy ledgers -- becomes an endeavor for the both of them to take on, while also trying to start a family and coping with George's checkered history with the locals. It's a tough racket, one that becomes even tougher to endure as their personal and professional lives test their trust in one another.

Serena never really recovers from the abruptness of the origin of the Pembertons' relationship, tossing together George and Serena without comprehending much of anything about their characters and expecting attractively-photographed shots of their longing gazes and carnal trysts to get the job done. Perhaps that would've worked better had Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence displayed the same on-screen rapport of their previous cinematic encounter, but little of that emerges in the numerous sex scenes and lengthy close-ups on their over-the-top interactions with one another. Frankly, neither of them feels comfortable in the Depression-era setting, appearing almost anachronistic through Cooper's indistinct accent and Lawrence's bottled-up quirkiness. Whether the Pembertons were to be set up for triumph or tragedy, their performances keep the audience at a safe distance from the depth of the their personalities, resulting in shallow, soapy conversations about their mutual dedication and benchmarks.

The only stroke of dramatic interest comes in Serena's interaction with the lumber business, how she imparts her partial authority and flexes her knowledge among a bunch of rough-and-tumble loggers. Despite fine cinematography from Valhalla Rising's Morten Soborg and amply organic production design to accentuate the environment around her, Director Bier's grasp on the events that transpire around Serena's interference -- both by her hand and in her persuasion over George -- is tenuous at its best, hacking away at sensible storytelling with a number of crackpot contrivances that lack in dramatic validity. Severed limbs, brushed-off hunting accidents, and illegitimate children concoct a connection of events intended to be a vivid glimpse at '30s gristle; instead, however, it ends up being the stuff of overwrought made-for-TV histrionics, visibly squandering its star power on a halfhearted cautionary tale about the pitfalls of ambition, about characters with whom the film doesn't appropriately make us give a whiff about.

That detachment from the period drama in Serena turns the shift in tone during its rambunctious final act into a real struggle, twisting the enterprising melodrama of the Pemberton timber machine into a warped thriller hinged on postpartum psychosis and backwater prophesying. Even with some added urgency in Jennifer Lawrence's performance as her character flares up out of control, everything at work here comes across as a rather preposterous attempt at Shakespearean cataclysm, with only vague notions about what it'd like to convey about George's waning grasp on his business and the demons of his past. Frankly, it's hard to find much of anything to value in the acrimonious climax to the Pemberton legacy, rewarding neither on the basis of half-baked suspense nor its mucky emotional tension. After leaving such a decidedly hollowed-out impression in what should be an expressively brawny historical epic featuring two of the hottest-burning embers in Hollywood right now, there's actually little surprise in such a piece of work being left alone to burn out into obscurity.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

On a strictly superficial level, there's a lot of beauty to be found in Serena, both in the camerawork's sprawling glimpses at the forested landscape and in the close-ups on the immensely attractive leads. Magnolia's Blu-ray struggles a tad bit with contrast balance, rendering some slightly hazy and graying black levels, but it's a real stunner otherwise in its 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer. The textures of wood grains and bark, of suits and other linens, and of the fur and feathers on animals reveal an incredibly natural grasp on fine detail. Tight shots on Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence's faces leave no details undefined, from strands of hair and stubble to the delicate flecks in their eyes, while pools of light cast fine shadows upon well-toned faces. The dirty, verdant greens and tans of the lumberyard and its inbuilt town convey a rich organic palette, accentuated by the outdoor sequences' aptly-captured scope and depth. At the very least, the Blu-ray makes a phenomenal case for Morten Soborg's cinematography.

Chopping and sawing sound elements are spread out between intense conversations echoing in wood-built houses and the natural sounds of the outdoors, conveyed rather beautifully through Magnolia's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Aside from a few stray effects that enhance the atmosphere, most of the sonic elements stretch out in the front channels with a satisfying caliber of clarity, from tires moving through mud and engines rumbling to the sound of an axe slamming into the trunk of a tree. Serena tends to be highly dialogue-driven, though, with robust, natural verbal clarity present in both Jennifer Lawrence's raspy voice and Bradley Cooper's mid-range smoothness. The score tends to be the most assertive element in the sound design, though, to which the rustic gentleness and insistently emotional crescendos are clear as a whistle and embrace the full breadth of Magnolia's track. English and Spanish subs are available.

Special Features:

A decent but generic batch of extras have been provided by Magnolia for Serena, spearheaded by The Making of Serena (18:23, 16x9 HD). The actors discuss the nature of their characters and small bits of the plot itself while director Suzanne Bier grazes against some of the themes near the middle of the piece, resulting in mere nuggets of interesting info sandwiched between press-kit fluff. Exploring the Production Time and the Period (9:41, 16x9 HD) takes a more interesting approach to the actual making of the film, touching on the references used in creating the time period and the construction of the sets and costumes. Christopher Kyle elaborates on some of the different between the book and the film in Following the Screenwriting (5:08, 16x9 HD), while Breaking Down the Set (4:44, 16x9 HD) explores the physical construction, renovation, and transformation of buildings to create the small-town environment in the film.

A lengthy slate of Deleted Scenes (18:51 16x9 HD) have also been included, which might shine a little light on some of the previous cuts of the film that were considered.

Final Thoughts:

I'm not worried about Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, as the neglected theatrical debut and home-video release of Serena shouldn't make much of a dent in the reputations of these appealing and talented individuals. There's certainly a reason why little hullabaloo was made about the film, though, since it's a stiff, droning flop of a period drama with unfitting performances turned in from both the leads. Magnolia's Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic and includes a batch of decent features, but that doesn't make it worth the effort. Skip It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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