Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

I’ve mused on adaptations of books into films so much in previous reviews on here – for once though, here’s a film adaptation of a book I haven’t read. Viewed just as a film, Where the Crawdads Sing is harmless enough, with plenty of interesting quirks to set it apart from similar films – but it’s not a particularly amazing movie or story, and as such it would actually put me off reading the book.

In 1950s North Carolina, Kya (Daisy Edgar Jones) experiences a childhood from hell, seeing her mother and siblings abandon her and her abusive drunk father. Living alone and fending for herself in the marshes, she keeps away from society, engaging only with a kindly local couple and [OBVIOUS LOVE INTEREST] Tate (Taylor John Smith). As she grows up, a relationship with douchebag popular boy Chase (Harris Dickinson) ends with his mysterious death, with Kya the prime suspect and vilified by locals for being the “marsh girl”. Kindly lawyer Tom Milton (David Straithairn) takes on her case, and bit by bit we learn more about her life and the people who affect it.

As an adaptation of an incredibly popular book, this film has to meet a lot of expectations – but none of that mattered to me having not read it! Able to judge it on its own merits, I was instead interested to learn about the frankly insane background of the author Delia Owens, and the growing questioning of her basing the story on her life in Africa, which also saw a murder in which both she and her husband are implicated. In essence: the reality is actually more interesting than the fiction, and decidedly more grim.

The story, as set out, adapted and directed, is quite good, if derivative – I can certainly see how it might work better in written form, though the location filming does a lot of heavy lifting to ensure that the movie has a strong sense of place and feel. Luc Alibar adapts Owens’ book, twists and turns in all and The Notebook-esque period romance in tow, and while it’s unconventional to discuss an ending before anything else, the novel (and film’s) ending was, for me, a complete cop-out shocker.

Bear with me here – ambiguity and twists are central to thrillers and dramas on the page and on the screen. This film cleverly leads audiences to multiple assumptions and upends them – but for me, its conclusion was both slightly predictable and also jaw-droppingly nuts. Keeping ambiguity throughout a story works best, I’ve found – especially when you’re not sure how something was done, or who did it. This film (and book) takes that idea, works with it for a while, then veers dramatically one way and the other, leaving me at least with a feeling afterwards of “what was the point then?!”.

Up until that point, the film is diverting enough, its links to many other crime and period dramas clear and its unique geographical basis a welcome change from other films like it. I also enjoyed the fact that the main character gets so much, well, characterisation – Kya’s life is a tragic and sorry one, and you’re definitely invested in what happens to her as you’re shown what she’s been through.

It’s got a strange mix of a languid pace (you might even say a sweaty, humid pace given the locations), but it doesn’t drag or feel like it’s taking too long to get to the point. The plot slowly unfurls itself out of chronological order, with some great editing work from Alan Edward Bell clearly defining when and where things are taking place.

It’s ably directed too by Olivia Newman, who utilises some top actors and distinctive locations to give the adaptation its best shot. The film’s strongest touch is the use of location, with Polly Morgan’s cinematography taking advantage of marshland woods, forests, swamps, reedbeds, beaches and that natural gloom to shine a light (no pun intended) on a lesser-seen American location. Natural light is used as often as possible, and even the indoor scenes in Kya’s (far too clean and tidy) marshland home feel believably set there, rather than in a studio.

The score by Mychael Danna is completely unmemorable, but during the film seemed to ably support the setting, locations and moods in an ethereal manner.

I think the film would absolutely have much less going for it without Daisy Edgar Jones, a top actress growing in profile who makes what could have been a terrible character more memorable and believable via her reserved, slowly unfurling performance. While it’s hard to believe someone living alone in the marshes would be this clean and healthy, Edgar Jones handles the awkwardness and socially-anxious elements of Kya well, but does her best work in dramatic or romantic scenes, creating great chemistry with her co-stars while also holding your attention in scenes on her own.

When it comes to the two suitors (yes, it’s that sort of stealth romance movie packaged within a lot of drama and trauma), Taylor John Smith’s Tate is an interesting spin on the good ol’ boy character, the American’s performance surprisingly sensitive and yet also blunt and complex for the time period. Tate doesn’t do exactly what you think he will, and it gives the story an interesting diversion, with the actor painting the character’s angst at his dilemmas and his love for Kya in a surprisingly different way to what you might expect.

Another Brit, Harris Dickinson, ably slots into the jock sleazeball stereotype as Chase, but again Dickinson imbues what might have been almost parodic character traits with some surprising changes. Chase is a boor, but one who’s hiding a sensitive side (or is he?!) – the fact that there’s that level of complexity mixed in means there’s more than your standard archetype going on, and Dickinson’s size and demeanour bring an air of danger to the role as well. You can see why he and Edgar Jones are at the forefront of young UK actors, given they effortlessly inhabit these American roles ahead of US performers.

Outside of the leads, Straithairn plays the stereotype with his usual air of kindly, slightly detached ease, with his lawyer not really straying from your expectations – you can tell he enjoyed the theatrical courtroom scenes though, underplaying large revelations with a dry humour. Beyond him, Garrett Dillahunt pops up, his character actor career ably shifting from amiable to aggressive from role to role with ease. Here, he’s sinister and unsettling as Kya’s deadbeat, horrible father, but in a few scenes still manages to get across an air of sadness as a man broken by life, who then decides to break others (and regrets it, while continuing to engage in it).

Finally, Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr feature as Mabel and James “Jumpin'” Madison, the kindly black folks who own a store on the marsh and who protect and surrogate-parent Kya. The actors do their level best with what amounts to stereotype (and that’s putting it kindly), while the film barely hints at the reality they would have faced in terms of racism at the time (and in this particular state).

There are absolutely some notable and interesting elements to this film. I did enjoy the tangible locations and sense of place, and the story was diverting enough – but its conclusion was a bit of a sticking point for me. The performances of the main three actors were notable, but in all it felt more of a curio to me: a movie trying to be like and yet unlike a lot of similar stories, while at the same time not committing to being different enough (and, in its ending, being almost too different).

And to be honest, having not read the book but assuming it’s a faithful adaptation – none of this can really be blamed on the filmmakers: sometimes a popular book should just stay a book, or change a little for the screen.

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