David Strathairn

Where the Crawdads Sing

23/07/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Delia Owens’ blockbuster novel Where the Crawdads Sing makes the transition into film, thanks to Reece Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine. I’ve never read the book but it’s probably just as well. The fact that it’s sold twelve million copies worldwide would make anything I have to say about it sound suspiciously like sour grapes. Suffice to say, I really hope it’s more convincing than the film.

This is the story of Kya Clark, a little girl living with her family in a remote shack, deep in the marshes of North Carolina. Kya’s Pa (Garret Dillahunt) is a violent drunk, a man so odious that first his wife leaves him, then his two daughters, then his son. None of them bothers to take poor little Kya, so she has to look after him on her own (thanks, guys!) Then Pa abandons Kya and she is obliged to fend for herself, grubbing a living by digging up mussels and selling them to the nice couple who run the local store. She tries a day in school, but is subjected to so much sniggering and cruelty from the other pupils that she runs home and never goes back. Somehow she manages to evade the authorities for… well, years. Mind you, this is the 1960s. It was a different time.

Quite how grubby little Kya metamorphoses into the impeccably turned-out Daisy Edgar-Jones is only one of the many mysteries here, but perhaps it’s something to do with washing your hair in swamp water. Eventually, Kya has a romantic dalliance with ‘nice’ Tate (Taylor John Smith) who teaches her to read (apparently in a matter of weeks). Then, when Tate heads off to college, she hooks up with the rather less cuddly, Chase (Harris Dickinson), who seems to be on a mission to be even more toxic than Kya’s Pa. We know from the film’s opening that Chase has ended up dead at the bottom of a lookout tower and that Kya is on trial for his murder. Luckily, she has the help of ‘nice’ lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn), who has come out of retirement in order to defend her…

If I’m making this sound unbelievable that’s because it really is – and it doesn’t help that its all painted in such broad brush strokes that nuance doesn’t get a look in. The people are overblown caricatures and the eyebrow-raising events just keep right on coming. Kya, it turns out, has the ability to draw and paint like a pro (without any formal training) and her very first submission to a publisher results in a life-changing publishing deal! Yeah, right. Apparently, there’s a massive demand for a book about swamp shells.

Edgar-Jones does the best she can with the thankless lead role, but she struggles as her character progresses through a series of dull events, which have the eerie ability to make a two-hour movie feel more like three. It’s not just me. The audience starts filtering out long before the final scene but I stick resolutely in my seat to see the film’s final – heavily-signposted – ‘twist’.

Of course, crawdads can’t actually sing, so Taylor Swift steps in with a specially-written ballad over the credits. Which is arguably the best thing here, but it’s a very low bar. Those who enjoyed the book might want to give this a go, but be warned: it’s underwhelming to say the least.

2.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Nightmare Alley

25/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

After the heartwarming optimism of Belfast, could there be a more contrary film than Nightmare Alley? This bleak, cynical tale of corrupt grifters, who spend their days trying to part the vulnerable from their worldly wealth, is a noir in the truest sense of the word, and marks the first time that Guillermo del Toro has stepped away from the supernatural or  sci-fi in order to tell a story. That said, this is every bit as dark as anything he’s done before.

It is of course, a remake, originally filmed in 1947 and starring Tyrone Power. Here, the boots of the lead character, Stanton Carlisle, are convincingly filled by Bradley Cooper. When we first meet Carlisle he’s carefully eradicating all traces of something he’s done – something bad that can only be cleansed by fire – but we won’t be given more detail until much later. After a long ride on an overnight bus, Carlisle arrives on the doorstep of a seedy carnival run by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), a venal charmer who thinks nothing of employing alcoholics and passing them off as ‘geeks’ – supposed ‘wild men’, who will bite the heads of live chickens for the entertainment of the carnival’s visitors.

Carlisle makes himself useful, helping to pitch tents and dispose of rubbish. He meets up with ‘Zeena’ (Toni Collette), who runs a mind-reading act alongside her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn), and, spotting an opportunity, Carlisle succumbs to Zeena’s charms, whilst filching the basics of Pete’s old routine for future use.

The carnival provides a wonderful setting, an atmospheric world where the neon-lit, tawdry wonders seem to throb with an innate sense of dread. Carlisle meets up with Molly (Rooney Mara), whose act has her being ‘electrocuted’ on a nightly basis. Carlisle transfers his affections to her, and the couple head off to the film’s second act, which takes up the story two years later. Now Carlisle and Molly are running a successful night club act, using Pete’s old blueprint, and are living the highlife. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this is noir, so of course there has to be a femme fatal and she dutifully arrives in the shape of psychologist Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett). She starts to dangle the prospect of even greater riches in front of Carlisle. Will he yield to temptation?

Del Toro’s theme here is that the unscrupulous operate by exploiting the weaknesses of their victims, whether they’re doing it from the grubby confines of a canvas tent or the swish environs of an art deco apartment building. And, as ever, the wealthy are never happy to stand still, when they can see even more riches glittering enticingly, just out of reach.

Nightmare Alley is proper, grown-up filmmaking. The lengthy running-time and serious subject matter will doubtless put some punters off, and financial success will rather depend on whether any of its predicted Oscar nominations come to fruition. While this might not be the slice of cinematic perfection that is The Shape of Water, it’s nonetheless the work of a gifted director at the peak of his powers, handling a tricky subject with consummate skill, aided and abetted by the dazzling cinematography of Dan Lautsen.

Plans are afoot to release a monochrome version of this, but it’s hard to imagine how it could look any more lush than it does here, with every frame a veritable work of art.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney