Like “Accidental Love,” the David O. Russell film that was so bad he took his name off the credits, “Serena” comes with such a fine pedigree that few will believe it’s not good unless they see it for themselves. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – who, ironically enough, have costarred beautifully in two David O. Russell films – get top billing, and it’s directed by Susanne Bier, whose operatic Danish film, 2006’s “After the Wedding,” deserved the foreign language Oscar for which it was nominated.
The problem lies squarely with the eponymous novel by Ron Rash. Though a critically acclaimed best seller, Serena should never have been adapted to the big screen. Its depressive, schlocky ambiguity could be overlooked, even appreciated, when meted out in Rash’s carefully tuned prose. But as a film, it translates into a melodrama that makes little sense and fewer friends. Even Darren Aronofsky, that master of elegantly crafted cinematic confusion (“Noah,” “Black Swan”), passed on this project, though he’d been slotted to direct it as an Angelina Jolie vehicle.
To be fair, it’s easy to see why Jolie expressed interest, and why Lawrence actually signed on. Serena is a sinewy, morally complex siren – the sort of engaging female role that’s hard to come by, especially in a period drama. With her platinum bob and Mysterious Past, she’s a Jean Harlow character if ever there were one, a sparkplug of such magnitude that lumber magnate George (Cooper) proposes the minute she gallops into his life like a female knight. (Fittingly, he gives her a white steed as a wedding present.) Soon after, the newlyweds tackle the forests of the North Carolina mountains, where she’s unfazed to discover a local girl is already pregnant with his child: “Nothing that happened before even exists,” she tells him. Such muttonheaded lines abound.
Though it is only 1929, George and Serena assume she will take an active role in overseeing his business. His less-evolved underlings are not so thrilled. A true femme fatale, Serena bulldozes her naysayers with butch glamour, making a wild eagle her pet, swinging an axe, and generally proving the kind of ruthless partner every timber baron requires. God knows these two are hardly a labor and environmental rights dream team: Limbs are lopped off willy-nilly with nary a workers compensation claim to be made, and financial shadiness is the name of the game. Local conservationist McDowell (Toby Jones) is keen to shut their operation down, and George’s chief adviser (and Serena’s chief detractor), Buchanan (David Dencik), is just as keen to betray his once-beloved boss. The man’s complicated reasons are never entirely spelled out. (He does wear suspiciously florid neck scarves, speaking of outdated cultural tropes.)
Through it all, the couple remains strong, even if their supposedly sizzling chemistry never really gets cooking. Clad in creamy pale fabrics that somehow never get dirty (Signe Sejlund’s costumes are wonderful) and set against sweeping, autumnal vistas, they look great, anyway. So does the film itself, though it moves glacially for a good hour even when Lawrence wows us with her sparkling fangs. All the better to eat you with, my dear. Cooper’s Southern cadences are impeccable, but it’s not clear if even he knows why he took this gig; his nervous energy reads as distracted rather than intense.
The film really falls off the rails when Serena suffers a late-pregnancy miscarriage, and morphs into a 1930s-style Lady Macbeth. Whether that’s because the trauma activates an already-dormant madness or that, you know, women get hysterical when something goes wrong with their baby-making parts, is not clear. Neither is the ensuing blur of activity involving George’s illegitimate child, a speedily rising body count, a shaman (Rhys Ifans, a long way from “Notting Hill”), and a three-way manhunt. Stripped of Rash’s cool, meditative narration, we don’t care enough to make heads or tails of this maelstrom, even if we could. Regardless of their backstories, these ill-tempered, short-sighted characters are unsympathetic bad seeds, and the film’s dour take on the American dream doesn’t offer enough insight to legitimize its fatalism.
I can’t help but wonder whether “Serena” would have made a better miniseries. Though compellingly rendered, Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s short story collection about an unpleasant woman in an unpleasant midcentury Maine town, was no carton of good eggs. Yet we hung on every minute of the subsequent HBO adaptation. Perhaps the punctuation provided by episodic television – the ellipses, the parenthesis, even the italics – better suits this modern American literary form: likeable fiction about unlikeable historical characters. On the psychiatrists’ couches these shows beam into our living rooms, we can learn to love our ugly pasts.
This was originally published in Word and Film.