Steven Knight has had a lot of success writing and creating TV shows in the UK, such as Taboo and Peaky Blinders. However, his film career has been largely average. Aside from directing the brilliant Locke and writing Eastern Promises, he mostly has screenplay credits on mediocre fare such as Burnt, Allied and Seventh Son. Enter Serenity, his third directorial effort to date and by far the one that has garnered the most infamy since it’s US release. And it is easy to see why, even if its weaknesses have been overhyped.
Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman living on the Plymouth Island trying to make a living by catching a large Tuna nicknamed “Justice”. One day, he is visited by ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), who offers him $10,000 to kill her abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke). He struggles with whether to go through with this plan, whilst being followed by businessman Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong).
Serenity’s story had potential, but it falls apart through many faults. Firstly, it is repetitive. Almost every scene repeats itself at least 2-3 times. Secondly, it is boring. The plot stalls for so long that there is no sense of build-up or tension in the narrative. Finally, whatever potential there was for the film to be suspenseful or interesting is negated by a halfway reveal that is one of the most head-scratching plot turns ever put to film. The inclusion of this additional storyline that introduces another genre altogether removes all investment and intrigue. Even if you do not know what the reveal is, you can see it coming through several incredibly unsubtle hints (the first shot almost gives it away). As a result, Serenity is a dull and predictable watch.
The script in general is rather poor, with dialogue that feels like an idiot’s attempt at writing a film-noir. None of the characters are worth caring about, due to many of them feeling quite stock and one-dimensional, especially Baker. Aside from being reluctant to kill someone, he’s got no interesting motives or characteristics to speak of. On top of this, the filmmaking is so self-serious that it fails to be enjoyable. If it committed to its own ludicrousness then it could have been charming, but Serenity is under the impression that it is saying something powerful, especially when it comes to the strangely sentimental finale. The occasional flourishes of overly stylised camerawork do not help either.
The acting fluctuates. Anne Hathaway and Jason Clarke do their best with the material and do come out with some dignity, despite being saddled with some awful dialogue. But Matthew McConaughey gives easily his weakest performance of the decade. The character is already bland, but he delivers every line in the same monotone drawling voice. When he is asked to show emotion, it’s hilariously bad, either by casually laughing about 5 times or by awkwardly yelling at the top of his lungs.
Serenity is a bizarrely ambitious failure and is basically 2019’s A New York Winter’s Tale (another self-serious, over-ambitious and ludicrous flop). It is admirable for its audacity, but if not for that twist then this film would barely be talked about. I can see why it went straight to Sky Cinema, because whilst not offensively bad, it is barely worth recommending.