Ron Rash’s novel “Serena” is a nasty piece of pure Southern gothic. Its protagonists, who are entitled up to their eyeballs, are a Western Carolina lumber baron and his heart-of-stone wife, who delight in environmental destruction and murdering anyone who gets in their way. Reading the book, you can’t wait until these folks get what they deserve.
Unfortunately, Danish director Susanne Bier (“Brothers,” the Oscar-winning “In A Better World”) has toned the material down and turned it into a turgid, unengaging mess which becomes more overwrought and ludicrous as it goes along. Despite A-list leads and some spectacular outdoor photography (much of it shot in the Czech Republic), “Serena” is one of the worst book-to-film adaptations in recent years.
Set during the early days of the Great Depression, “Serena” finds Bradley Cooper and wife Jennifer Lawrence happily ensconced near Asheville, running a major lumber business, and using what one character terms “cut and run” methods to denude the forests around them. Their dream is to leave the Smokies a barren wasteland and then decamp to Brazil, where they will do the same to the Amazon basin.
But other folks, led by sheriff Toby Jones, are pushing for a national park in the area, which would preserve its scenic beauty. And it seems hubby’s right-hand man, who knows all his illegal doings (like bribing politicians), is in with the conservation crowd. So he is killed off in a fake hunting accident. And then when wifey, after having a miscarriage, discovers that hubby might actually love the bastard child he fathered with an employee, the you-know-what really hits the fan.
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All of this could have made for a deliciously noir-ish film, but director Bier has totally undercut its emotional intensity with sluggish pacing, short, choppily edited scenes, and the ultimate cliché – cutting from intense sequences to moody shots of the fog-shrouded landscape.
There are also casting and performance problems. Jones, probably best known for playing Truman Capote in “Infamous,” is supposed to be a formidable opponent, but he has all the gravitas of a Munchkin. Rhys Ifans, as a one-handed killer who is in league with Serena, is directed to act as if he were in the latest “Friday the 13th” iteration. And Jennifer Lawrence is not only too young and sweet-faced for her part, but she can’t quite convey the steeliness and cold-bloodedness it demands.
Readers of the book will also discover that the ending has been significantly changed, and not for the better. Even those who are not familiar with Rash’s novel will find the denouement rushed, hysterical and unconvincing. Bottom line: “Serena” is soon to wind up on someone’s list of “worst book-to-movie adaptations.” Count on it.
D+ Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones
Director: Susanne Bier
Length: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Rating: R (some violence and sexuality)
Chapel Hill: Chelsea. Durham: Carolina. Raleigh: Grande.