Delia Owen’s Where The Crawdads Sing is a literary phenomenon. Selling over 12 million copies, it was inevitable that film companies would turn the book into a movie. The book is now in cinemas thanks to producer Reece Witherspoon and her Happy Sunshine company. Having never read the book, I have to admit that on the evidence of the film, it seems pretty hard to understand how it became such a smash, as the movie is a little underwhelming.
Kya Clark is a young woman abandoned by her family and lives alone in the marshlands of North Carolina. The local townsfolk fear her and call her the Marsh Girl. She befriends Tate, a man who teaches her to read and write and persuades her to send her drawings of shells to publishers. They fall in love, but Tate leaves for college and doesn’t return, leaving Kya alone. She then meets Chase, a popular young man she falls for until she discovers he is engaged. His body is found at the bottom of a fire tower, and Kya is accused, facing the possibility of the death sentence if found guilty.
Olivia Newman’s feature film debut (she did make a Netflix movie called First Match) does look impressive. She captures the swamplands of North Carolina well, with solid use of the setting and using it as its own character. She isn’t as successful in conveying the story, which is just too weak and obvious. It comes across as pulpy, like a modern Mills and Boons with a sideline of John Grisham. The story is brimming with contrivances and incidents that are mentioned and then forgotten, never once pushing the drama forward.
So many things bothered me that took me away from the story’s heart. Firstly, why would a family abandon their youngest child? The Clark family are loving and close until the father becomes violent and abusive, leading the family unit to collapse and each member to walk out. The one thing they don’t do is take the youngest member with them, leaving her to fend for herself with a man who has already beaten her. Eventually, he goes as well, meaning that a young girl with no knowledge or education lives by herself away from the nearest town.
What else bothered me was the choice of costume for Kya. Dressed in floaty white dresses, this must be the cleanest marshland ever as no scratch of dirt appears on these perfectly cleaned outfits. Now I know some people may find this picky, but when you are focusing on how clean someone proves how uninvolving the drama is.
As for the romantic sections of the film, you know that Kya will be abandoned again by both her lovers. Tate says that he refuses to stay in the town and become a fisherman like her father, so college is in his future, and you know he won’t return, while Chase comes across as the stereotypical male who will break her heart. We then get the courtroom drama which lacks one crucial aspect, any form of real drama. There are revelations, but the evidence is so flimsy, based around the fibres of a red hat, that the case would probably be thrown out immediately. So it’s a case against someone different instead of having anything that would say she was the suspect.
Not only that, there are subplots that come without any real resolutions. Social services pursue Kya, but this is forgotten almost instantly, while her home is on land that, if someone pays $800 in back taxes, they can claim as their own. Yet the developers led to this revelation don’t do anything about it. Quite possible, the worst developers ever.
Thankfully the lead performance keeps the attention. Daisy Edgar-Jones, who shot to fame in the TV drama Normal People, is terrific as Kya. The London actress captures the vulnerability of Kya beautifully, and her Southern accent is pitch perfect. It should open the door to more significant and, hopefully, better opportunities. Veteran actor David Strathairn also delivers another excellent performance as the kindly Tom Milton, the retired lawyer who takes on Kya’s case. Sadly, Taylor John Smith as Tate and Harris Dickinson as Chase are given roles that never stretch them as actors. The parts are far too obvious: one’s nice, and one’s nasty. However, they do their best with these characters.
Where The Crawdads Sing isn’t the worse film in the world and fans of the book will probably enjoy seeing this adaptation. It just isn’t exciting, original or gripping enough. I guess 12 million readers cannot be wrong but then look at how popular Fifty Shades of Grey was. Enough said.
2 out of 5
Director: Olivia Newman
Starring: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, David Strathairn, Michael Hyatt, Sterling Macer Jr, Logan Macrae
Written by: Lucy Alibar and (based on the novel) Delia Owen
Running Time: 125 mins
Release date: 22nd July 2022