Synopsis – A woman who raised herself in the marshes of the deep South becomes a suspect in the murder of a man she was once involved with.
My Take – Winning over an audience through big screen adaptions is a risky business, as what works on paper doesn’t always work on screen. Especially an enormously popular one like Delia Owens’s debut novel which was number one on New York Times best seller list for 2019 and 2020, and remained on the list for almost three years.
A challenge undertaken by Hello Sunshine, a company founded by Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon, director Olivia Newman (First Match), and writer Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Troop Zero), who took up the irrefutable job to adapt the popular novel into a 126 minute long feature. With Taylor Swift writing an original song called Carolina for the film.
Not being among the 12 million readers, I approached the film version in a state of ignorance about the title and found the resulting film to be a mixture of a coming-of-age drama, love story, courtroom drama and a murder mystery that is not a perfect yet gripping throughout even when it littered with clichés.
A film which could have been a smashing success (I mean critically, not financially) only if it had been constructed better. More Nicholas Sparks works inspired than necessary and always pleasing to the eye, the film works like a by the numbers adaption, never divulging too much into its important themes as writer Lucy Alibar waters down its most harrowing moments, seeming to trust that many viewers had familiarity with the hardest parts, diminishing the qualities that apparently made Owens’ source material a best seller.
However, the best thing it does is place rising British star Daisy Edgar-Jones under the spotlight, who single-handedly overcomes the Lifetime-film vibe, and makes the enterprise something that will at least be remembered as her showcase.
Primarily set within a two-decade period beginning from the early 1950s, the story follows the life of Catherine “Kya” Clarke (Daisy Edgar-Jones) a timid yet intellectually gifted girl who lives in the swamps of the North Carolina marshlands. Living just above the poverty line selling mussels, after she was abandoned by her mother (Ahna O’Reilly), then her siblings and then finally her alcoholic and abusive father (Garret Dillahunt), Kya lives a solitary life in the family home and is shunned by the townspeople, dubbed Marsh Girl. It’s only the kindly black couple (Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt) who run the general store in Barkley Cove who take any trouble to get to know her or show any concern for her welfare.
However, when Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), a popular town quarterback, with whom she was secretly involved with, is found dead under mysterious circumstances near Kya’s home, the ire of an already suspicious town is aimed at her, after all she is an easy target. Thankfully, retired defendant Tom Milton (David Strathairn) decides to take up her case, but not before he listens to Kya narrate her life story, from her childhood abandonment, to her blossoming teenage romance with a boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), to how she and Chase eventually cross paths.
The story is simple but intriguing, with two intertwining narratives and timelines and a whole To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) vibe to it. Clichéd but absorbing enough, events transfer to screen with sensible direction from Olivia Newman coordinating production logistics. Awash as it is in steamy melodrama, the story examines trust, giving, earning and abusing, and growth, freedom and confinement, and of course justice. Here, director Olivia Newman works with cinematographer Polly Morgan to capture the beauty of the landscape, suggesting an earthly paradise in which Kya can escape from the world.
Punctuated by broad pink sunsets and kisses stolen in dreamy wetlands, this stultifying adaptation of the bestselling 2018 novel by Delia Owens has all the ingredients of a gorgeously produced guilty pleasure with stunning scenery, beautiful people in love, prohibitive class differences, yet none of the momentum, moving drearily between plot beats without ever catching fire. The film is at its best during these ostensible flashbacks, weaving a tale of loneliness and a lifelong sense of betrayal that would be compelling even without the murder that theoretically drives the plot.
We’re supposed to understand that it’s the rawness and infinite mystery of the natural world which has given Kya the strength to survive, embodied in the way she develops into a brilliant writer and illustrator of books about the flora and fauna of the swamps. She grasps implicitly the notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest, which is where she intersects with the film’s parallel theme of the unexplained death of Chase Andrews. Making for a compelling character study, albeit one informed primarily by a sense of isolation that the film’s brisk pace and courtroom framing device never authentically creates.
Without a doubt, the film’s weakest link is the courtroom procedural that feels forced between bits of Kya’s history. While Newman‘s direction maintains the mystery through the gasps and sneers from the gallery during the trial sequences, leading to the eventual determination of Kya’s fate. The transition between scenes should feel more natural, or at least thematically interconnected. Courtroom scenes pop up without warning, and they only function in parallel to, and never in conjunction with, the flashback scenes that proceed or follow them. All leading to a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t overplay its hand.
Of course it helps that Daisy Edgar-Jones brings in a convincing lead performance as Kya. There is a wide eyed innocence about Kya that she captures which, in turn, captivates the audience to invest in her story and her plight. Expect Edgar-Jones to go onto bigger and greater things, not to mention award nominations, for her committed performance. Jojo Regina too does a remarkable job playing young Kya.
David Straithairn, Harris Dickinson and Tate John Smith are effective in their roles, with standout supporting performances coming from Sterling Macer Jr. and Michael Hyatt, whose characters walk a fine line in portraying humble Black shopkeepers while working to coyly undermine any white person who would threaten to hurt their or Kya’s livelihood. On the whole, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ is a decent by the numbers adaption that doesn’t live up to its full potential.
Directed – Olivia Newman
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 126 minutes