Whittled away to a meaningless splinter from dense, layered oak, Serena is a baffling failure of an adaptation that contains such strange script choices, it seems like one of those studio hatchet jobs you read about years after the fact. It's certainly not faithful to Ron Rash's source novel. Serena, the movie, leaves out key scenes, rewrites others, and does little to capture the beauty of Rash's language, or the danger of his story.
Set in 1929, Serena follows George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), a timber baron set on sweeping the North Carolina Smoky Mountains clean before moving on to Brazil where boundless acres of virgin forests await. Complicating things, George falls in love as soon as he sets eyes on Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), an alabaster-skinned beauty whom he first sees atop a mounted steed, like a Greek goddess come to life.
Soon George and Serena are married and engulfed in their rustic timber camp. Serena asserts herself the equal of any man and is soon drawing cheers when she trains an eagle to hunt the deadly rattlesnakes bothering the workers. Things are good, and lucrative, but George and Serena are about to face trials they never imagined. An impending National Park coalition threatens the business, and Serena slowly begins to unravel after a miscarriage.
The story is an original. It wades into the same waters as There Will Be Blood, a film of American greed and blindness. But where that film and Rash's novel kept forceful narratives that moved ever onward, Serena, the movie, is lazy and aimless, a daydream thriller. It's no wonder the film, made in 2012, was shelved for so long and given a limited release. Directed by Susanne Bier and adapted by Christopher Kyle (not the American Sniper), Serena has none of the novel's doom. It feels conjured, full of emotional moments it doesn't earn. Scenes are thrown next to one another and, although Lawrence is impressive and the scenery beautiful, things just feel off.
In the beginning, George tells a comrade, "I want one." He's talking about a panther they've been hunting, but he's really yearning for Serena. He covets danger, however consciously, and the film is set up for Lawrence to thrive in the title role. Serena has movie star looks but is severely damaged. Raised in a timber camp herself, she lost her entire family to a fire as a child and tells George at one point, "I never thought I'd find anyone." She has most of her screen time in the film's first act, but she slowly, incredibly, fades away as the film moves on. The filmmaking is emotionally empty, but at least the story is set up for Serena to steal the show. Instead, the script changes course from the book and nothing makes sense by the end.
This film needed to be given to Jennifer Lawrence. Serena, the character, is written to take over rooms and that's what the three-time Oscar nominee does best. The movie's best moments feature Lawrence in emotional overload. One, where she slowly breaks down after the miscarriage, is filmed in tight close-up and will send chills down your spine. This is what's so frustrating. Serena should be full of moments like this, but Lawrence is only given half a character.
Meanwhile, Bier lays it on with heavy strings and slow-motion. This passes for character development. The long, soulful looks between Lawrence and Cooper add little and the film's PG-rated sex scenes are a yawn. Filmed mainly in Prague, the production design is stellar and vivid, a hard vision of a worker's life. And it seems like the environment affected the film. Apart from Lawrence, the actors all look like they'd rather be home in bed, like they knew they were working on something that wasn't working.