The Plot: North Carolina, the 1960s. A small Southern town lives in doubt and possible fear over the presence of Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) close by in the marshes. A recluse that few understand or care to know, the marshland is her world and she identifies with nature more so than people. Though, she does have a close friendship with Tate (Taylor John Smith), but he leaves in time. When the town’s golden boy Chase (Harris Dickinson) takes an interest in Kya and tries to tame this apparently wild animal, he ends up a corpse in the marshes. All fingers point towards Kya, but she and her lawyer Tom (David Strathairn) work to clear her name in the courtroom…
The Verdict: Adapting a best-selling book into a summer-oriented potential blockbuster comes with many pitfalls, including how to get the tone and execution right while keeping readers and audiences happy. However, that didn’t stop producer Reese Witherspoon having a crack at Where The CrawdadsSing by Delia Owens. The American slang title doesn’t make a lick of sense to an international audience, but Sony held onto it nonetheless – perhaps for brand recognition. The oft-repeated nickname of The Marsh Girl has a better ring to it, since that’s what the film is ultimately about. It’s a Southern-fried slice of period melodrama, with the emphasis on mellow rather than drama. It moves back and forth in time to unpeel the gradual layers in its apparently misunderstood main character. While it positions itself as a courtroom piece and murder investigation, there’s more going on underneath the surface.
Much like Kya, Olivia Newman’s film keeps itself in the shadows. It grinds away through its plot machinations and attempts to throw red herrings aplenty to throw the audience off the scent – or perhaps on the scent. The script adaptation by Lucy Alibar never quite knows what to make of Kya. Is she a quiet simpleton, a misunderstood outcast, an actually talented young woman inexperienced with life and how to deal with the world outside her own little marsh world? She’s all of them and yet none of them, as the script never really lands on a definite definition of who Kya is as a character. She’s inexperienced with men but doesn’t behave so at all when it comes to the two men who take an active interest in her. Her words don’t match up with her actions, not helped by a misjudged final reel that zips through too much plot too quickly and then lands somewhere else entirely. Some might say that’s the point of the story, but it doesn’t ring true as a film in the round. To pull off something like that, the director and her team really need to earn the audience’s trust. The filmmakers are walking backwards uphill on that front.
Despite a spirited lead performance from Daisy Edgar-Jones who anchors the film well, this glossy adaptation tries too hard to be earnest and well-meaning. All the characters are either white or black in the morality stakes, essentially coming across as too nice or too mean – a rather simplistic approach towards a heinous crime. It’s more likely that the characters are fifty shades of grey. Speaking of which, the film barely rises to a simmer on the love front. The lack of chemistry between Edgar-Jones and the two male actors in the love triangle is all too obvious and too innocently chaste. Where’s Paul Verhoeven when you need him to spice up a film adaptation and make it a sizzling southern tale of love, lust and murder under the sweaty, oppressive haze of the summer heat? The ending does recall one of his films, but without the guts to actually make it convincing. Along with Edgar-Jones, the ever-dependable David Strathairn comes out unscathed. Meanwhile, the other actors and the filmmakers flounder about in the marshes searching for a credible explanation. Where The CrawdadsSing may be a bestseller, but the film of the book is an underheated potboiler that is too ineffective to function properly.
Rating: 2 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Where The Crawdads Sing
Where The Crawdads Sing (USA / 15A / 125 mins)
In short: Underheated potboiler
Directed by Olivia Newman.
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, David Strathairn, Garret Dillahunt.