Some novels just shouldn’t be adapted for film. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie.
These two truisms come to mind in the wake of Serena, Susanne Bier’s troubled, long-shelved adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2009 novel (for context, Serena was shot on location in the Czech Republic between the Cooper/Lawrence teamings with David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle).
In addition to his short story and book-length fiction, much of which is situated in in the Appalachian mountain range, Rash is a poet, and the book sings with delicate, evocative prose. This is difficult to do on film; perhaps the closest example pertinent to Serena is poet and novelist James Dickey’s adaptation of his own Deliverance, and John Boorman’s astute direction of it.
Unfortunately, the novel has been less adapted than hacked away at by Christopher Kyle, whose previous credits include The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow, as well as Oliver Stone’s Alexander and, oddly enough, a couple of episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Thus, the four major plot strands, which flow together seamlessly in the novel, seem shallow and perfunctory on film. George and Serena’s passionate bond is weakened by the emerging news that George fathered a son with a local labourer prior to Serena’s departure, and when Serena miscarries their own child she grows brittle and he is drawn to the illegitimate boy.
Meanwhile, George and Buchanan are angling to establish their business in Brazil. But first they must bribe certain locals, which sits poorly with Buchanan. So, at Serena’s urging—Buchanan seems to be jealous of her—George shoots him in the chest during a panther hunt.
Evidence of the bribery exists in the ledgers of the business, which are stolen by another employee and given to local sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones), who harbours resentment over George’s plundering of the timber.
Finally, sinister henchman Galloway (a virtually unrecognizable Rhys Ifans), having lost his hand in a freak accident, sees this as a sign and becomes so devoted to Serena that he does her bidding by attempting to murder George’s son.
In the hands of a more flamboyant and less literal filmmaker, the material could have been played either as an overheated Bette Davis-type Warner Bros. melodrama or as straight as a doomed William Wyler love story.
Bier does neither, opting to have her characters deliver such potentially turgid lines as “I think we should be married” (George’s opening salvo to Serena) and “I have your child inside me” (Serena’s later proclamation of impending parenthood to George) with robotic precision, thus leaching the proceedings of either raw emotion or guilty pleasure potential.
Lawrence remains a charismatic screen presence even when saddled with ironed hair and aimless Lady Macbeth aspirations. Cooper seems dazed at the script’s superficiality, and his cause isn’t bolstered by a come-and-go Appalachian patois that occasionally touches on authenticity.
The Czech Republic does a reasonably good job of standing in for the mountain range, though at least one of production designer Richard Bridgland’s period buildings looks more like a Soviet-era local dacha than the cargo depot it’s meant to be.
In the end, it’s best to chalk Serena up to misguided ambition and noble intentions. As late-night cable fodder it could pass for Cold Mountain redux, though in the end, as befits a book that shouldn’t have been filmed by a talented director who failed to enliven a skeletal script, Serena is handsomely mounted, woodenly played and, as a result, resolutely inert.