Ron Rash’s Serena is the story of a blossoming timber operation in North Carolina in the 1930s, headed by the rich and virile newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton. At war with the American government over a potential seizure of their land for a National Park, the Pembertons grow increasingly distrustful of the men working underneath them as well as, eventually, one another. Rash, writing with beautiful, nearly bibilical authority, likens the elemental destruction of the Pemberton woods to the erosion of the working class’s hope in the wake of the Depression, and eventually to the unknowable recesses of a broken woman scorned. The resonant, propulsive novel would make for a remarkable movie, most obviously in the tonal key of a weirdly moving greed parable like There Will Be Blood, but Serena is an odd choice as a vehicle for America’s new sweethearts, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and Susanne Bier’s film never allows you to forget it.
Which is not to imply that Cooper and Lawrence can’t play outside their David O. Russell rom-com comfort zones, because they can and have. In American Sniper, Cooper evinced a startlingly hard and heavy physicality that would suit George Pemberton, and Lawrence has yet to surpass her breakthrough performance in Winter’s Bone, which allowed her to inform her gorgeousness with a needful, feral steeliness that’s ideal for Rash’s conception of Serena. But this film has the duo’s light and charming chemistry on the brain, and it can’t reconcile Rash’s apocalyptic tenderness with its own eagerness to revel in romantic star allure. These two impulses cancel each other out: Rash’s readers won’t be able to get over the film’s incompetent bungling of even the simplest of narrative compressions, and newcomers will find this Serena to be unpleasant, incoherent, and lifeless.
The film is one of those adaptations that mistakes literal-minded fealty to its source material for spiritual faithfulness, cramming in virtually all of the novel’s major beats into its 109 minutes while simultaneously strip-mining them of context. The brutal quotidian of working life on a timber operation, the entire point of the book, has been reduced to a few expository lines about worker mishaps. Pemberton’s camp is merely a stage, devoid of texture, rich in picturesque banalities, on which actors walk on and off, delivering dialogue that explains motivations and context with an amateurish lack of subtext that quickly grows stifling. The audience is never allowed to sort anything out for itself. The film is particularly desperate to remind us that Serena isn’t like other more skittish women, which is necessary, as she has been sanded down from the Lady Macbeth of the book to another condescendingly troubled Lawrence cherub.
Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle go to remarkable lengths to rob George and Serena of their original agency, because it’s presumably at odds with the boring rules of movie-star likability. George and Serena’s original campaign of murder has been pared down and softened, and the two aren’t complicit with one another anymore; the source of their attraction, which is a vicious need to assert their primal physicality as an over-compensating rebuff to their posh origins, is jettisoned. Bier fast-tracks the dawn of George’s conscience, playing him off of Serena in a traditional hero/villain opposition. This is a pronounced betrayal of Serena and Lawrence, who’s stranded playing mad-housewife clichés that come on so fast, due to poor pacing, as to make no sense. Serena’s supposed to be a brutal warrior woman of the woods, and the script repeatedly underlines that, but we never see it, and Lawrence’s gestures suggest not a woman who’s hard beyond her years, but a child playing dress-up in a manner that recalls the actress’s overpraised performance in American Hustle. The script even deprives Serena of innovations that wouldn’t necessarily conflict with Bier’s desire to sell the audience a conventional romantic tragedy. Serena’s determination to expand the Pemberton Empire into Brazil, for instance, has been pointlessly transferred to George, who’s played by Cooper with a shaky earnestness that’s more apropos of a nervous prom king than a timber baron.
A film, despite the protestations of readers to the contrary, needn’t heed its source material, necessarily, if there’s a greater aesthetic good at stake, but it’s fair to cry foul when a good work is raided and abandoned ineptly for reasons that are alternately cynical and inexplicable. Serena is a ludicrous, slapdash case in point.