Director: Olivia Newman
Writer: Lucy Alibar (screenplay), Delia Owens (novel)
Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Taylor John Smith, Harris Dickinson, David Strathairn, Sterling Macer Jr., Michael Hyatt, Garret Dillahunt
Producers: Reese Witherspoon, Lauren Neustadter
Music: Mychael Danna
Cinematographer: Polly Morgan
Editor: Alan Edward Bell
Running time: 116mins
What’s the story: North Carolina, 1969. In a small town, Kya (Edgar-Jones), a young woman who grew up in the nearby marshland, stands trial for the murder of her one-time lover, Chase (Dickinson). Over the course of the trial, the events of Kya’s life are revealed.
What’s the verdict: First, a confession. I have not read Delia Owens’ 2018 novel upon which this murder-mystery-romance is based. Judging from other reviews, the transition from page to screen has been… swampy. Those excited by the prospect of harmonising crayfish may also be disappointed by their non-appearance.
But, from the viewpoint of someone with little prior knowledge, Where the Crawdads Sing is fine enough fare for those wanting an engrossing, polished love story. With a little bit of grit, but some of the rougher edges of the book seemingly smoothed out.
Made in association with Hallmark Productions and produced by Reese Witherspoon, this is the stuff of hundreds of years of romantic fiction. Never mind Nicholas Sparks, we’re going back to Mills & Boon, and into Gothic romance. An intelligent, willful, misunderstood young woman blossoms in love and faces adversity, while the larger forces of an uncaring community attempt to stamp out her unique flame.
But it’s all in the telling. In director Olivia Newman’s hands, the romantic conventions are painted in heartfelt broad strokes. Ably assisted by cinematographer Polly Morgan’s honey-glow magic hour visuals. The 1950s and 60s production design has a ring of authenticity, and anchoring it all is Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones. The London born actor convinces as Kya, the “Marsh Girl” whose winsome frame and sensitive eyes hide a lifetime of survival. Credit also to Jojo Regina as Kya in the 1950s flashbacks.
Our heroine’s woes come thick and fast. The framing story has her standing trial for the alleged murder of Chase. Flashbacks reveal a life of abandonment by her abused mother and siblings, and hardship with her tyrannical father (Dillahunt) out in the marshland. He too is soon gone, leaving her to fend for herself. The nearby town scorns her, until the kindly Tate (Smith) reaches out and romance grows.
The court case takes second place to the romantic subplots and Kya’s development as a gifted artist of the natural world. Even those not well-schooled in romantic literature will spot certain twists and betrayals coming. A healthy dose of magical realism, such as in screenwriter Lucy Alibar’s earlier Beasts of the Southern Wild, may have cushioned some of the contrivances.
Plus, not all the criticisms are unwarranted. The young Kya’s only friends, store owners Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, brush close against the stereotype of kindly black characters there to help the white lead. What nuance there is belongs to the performances from Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt. A late in the day revelation gives the film a sting, but wilts under scrutiny. Plus, it’s never clear why the townsfolk are so hostile to the fresh-faced, softly-spoken Kya. A few early scenes of her mean Pa alienating the town would have laid useful groundwork.
But, again we return to the pleasure in watching a sincere tale capably told. The earnestness can be seen in the attire adorning David Strathairn’s kindly lawyer, a white suit deliberately recalling Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. And Where the Crawdads Sing is not afraid to depict the sexual power imbalance, sometimes sad, sometimes shocking, between Kya and the unthinking men in her life.
No classic then, but an enjoyable night at the movies is no bad thing.