Strong visuals and an excellent cast don’t quite make up for a soft-centered story.
- A superb Daisy Edgar-Jones
- Stunning photography
- Very watchable, despite its shortcomings
- A squeaky clean version of a grittier tale
- Visuals win out over substance
Where The Crawdads Sing is a much-anticipated adaptation of Delia Owens’ best seller of the same name and is already tipped to be one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters.
Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, is at the helm and it’s Daisy Edgar-Jones’ (Normal People, Fresh) biggest role to date, one that could catapult her onto the A list. No pressure, then.
But there are times when that pressure threatens to sink this lusciously photographed drama, despite its valiant attempts to keep its head above water. The Where The Crawdads Sing story revolves around Kya (Edgar-Jones) who, abandoned by her family, lives alone in the vast marshes outside Barkley Cove in North Carolina. An outcast among the locals, who brand her “The Marsh Girl”, her understanding of the natural ecosystems in the area brings her success in writing and illustrating books.
But her life is solitary and when her first teenage love, Tate (Taylor John Smith), appears to abandon her just like everybody else, she’s easy prey for the charms of smooth-talking Chase (Harris Dickinson). When he’s found murdered, she quickly becomes the obvious suspect.
So, a murder mystery? Yes. But only up to a point. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is very much a romance and for the first two thirds plays out like an attractively packaged coming of age story. And it’s the packaging that gets in the way of the occasional promise of something gritty and more challenging, leaving us with a story that feels like it’s been sanitised so much that the result is near squeaky clean.
The townsfolk have christened her “The Marsh Girl”, so the inference is that Kya’s something of a wild child, antisocial, an oddity. True, she’s admirably at home among the marshland, knows the landscape like the back of her hand and can handle herself around the wildlife, even the menacing alligators. But while we expect somebody unkempt – grubby even – and uncommunicative, we’re presented with admittedly a shy girl but one whose hair and skin shine with health and who, like as not, smells as sweet as the wildflowers.
The same can be said for her house. It may not be especially tidy, but its chintz and general clutter have a welcoming, lived-in look. All very clean, all very pretty. How she achieves her immaculate lifestyle is a complete mystery and the hostility she receives from most of the locals is equally head-scratching. In a film where isolation and acceptance are key themes, this is worryingly under-developed. Not only is there no clear reason for their antagonism, from what we see it isn’t that acute, which undermines her self-imposed solitude and one of the film’s key foundations.
The end result is a romantic drama, something of a tear-jerker, one with a moment in the sand that looks like a toned-down version of that legendary scene in From Here To Eternity. The murder mystery and resulting courtroom sequence feel tacked on purely to provide a climax and they do the job, due mainly to the efforts of David Strathairn as Kya’s lawyer. He’s the sort of defense attorney anybody would want – benevolent, but takes no prisoners.
In fact, along with the stunning photography, it’s the acting that sticks in your memory. Daisy Edgar-Jones holds the whole thing together with ease, outwardly vulnerable but with a powerful survival instinct, all of which means you completely buy into her many emotional issues. It’s an impressive performance that confirms, yet again, that she’s a talent to be reckoned with. As the duplicitous Chase, Harris Dickinson plays to his strengths and is the perfect bad boy. Not as vicious as the cold-blooded drug king Simon in County Lines (2019), it’s true, but you certainly wouldn’t trust him with a bag of sweets, let alone your heart.
Despite the inconsistencies and the distinct sense that there’s a much harder-hitting story concealed under the soft-focus storytelling, Where The Crawdads Sing is still eminently watchable. The cast, the setting and the photography all come together to make sure of that and do a creditable job. If only the story wasn’t so watered down.
Where The Crawdads Sing is released in the US on Friday, July 15 and in UK cinemas on Friday, July 22.
Freda can't remember a time when she didn't love films, so it's no surprise that her natural habitat is a darkened room in front of a big screen. She started writing about all things movies about eight years ago and, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, is a regular voice on local radio on her favorite subject.
While she finds time to watch TV as well — her tastes range from Bake Off to Ozark — films always come first. Favourite film? The Third Man. Top ten? That's a big and complicated question .....!
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