Film review – Serenity (2019)

Winning an Oscar isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. For some actors it’s a ticket to the top, for others a descent into obscurity. And then there’s another group, the ones who carry on working but never get anywhere near those heights again. At the moment, Matthew McConaughey seems to be falling into that third one. After all those rom coms and the McConaissance that culminated in his gold statuette for Dallas Buyers Club, the quality of his movies has been variable, from Interstellar to The Dark Tower. Serenity isn’t going to do much to help.

Writer/director Steven Knight has described McConaughey as a modern day Robert Mitchum. If that’s the case, the film would wake up those famously sleepy eyes, if only out of sheer astonishment. It’s obvious from the outset that we’re in for anything but a serene ride – those melodramatic drums in the opening music give it away – and the initial impression is of being back in Jaws territory. The skipper of the boat – the Serenity of the title – is obsessed with catching one particular fish. But the story is closer to film noir, with femme fatale Karen (Anne Hathaway) offering the boat’s owner and her ex-lover Baker Dill (McConaughey) a large sum of money to kill her husband. And, reluctantly, he comes up with a plan.

A cinematic homage, then? So far, yes – admittedly not of the most superior type, but at least you know where you are and movie geeks will have fun spotting the references, from Hathaway’s dyed blonde locks onwards. But, by the time that McConaughey passes judgement on the film with the immortal words “this makes no sense”, everything’s gone off the rails, switching to a narrative that now includes his son by Hathaway inventing a computer game as his escape from a violent home life. Any more than that would give things away, although this isn’t a film with an ending that’s easy to predict. And not in a good way.

The disconnect between the two halves of the storyline – which are, nonetheless, supposed to merge at the very least – is just one of the film’s issues. It simply doesn’t work on so many levels. There’s the plot, the dialogue which is like lumpy rice pudding, the stereotypes masquerading as characters, despite the efforts of the high-powered cast – in short, it’s all rather silly. Fans of the McConagha-butt, however, will be more than happy, though, as he spends a lot of time taking pleasure with paid-for lover Diane Lane, followed by a steamy-ish sequence with Hathaway. And Knight’s attempt to introduce an air of mystery into the setting – the island of Plymouth looks Caribbean, but the music is always Cajun – is mildly intriguing, but little else.

So what we have here is a piece of noir techno-psycho babble. But here is the rub, and it feels strange to say this. It’s surprisingly watchable. That may, of course, be for all the wrong reasons: it’s so outlandish, you can’t help but wonder what on earth is going to happen next and you’re waiting for the next accidental laugh. There are plenty of those. But watch it you will. That doesn’t make it good: it just makes it morbidly fascinating and, on that basis, it’ll probably do decent box office and be marked down as the first film of 2019 that can truthfully be labelled as so bad it’s a must-see. But don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Freda Cooper |

Drama, Thriller | USA, 2019 | 15| UK, 1 March (2019) | Sky Cinema | Dir. Steven Knight | Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Rafael Sayegh.

Coming Soon our exclusive interview with Serenity writer/director Steven Knight.

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