Harris Dickinson

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

The King’s Man

02/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s two Kingsman movies. A refreshing take on the spy genre, written with a nod and a cheeky grin, they provided easy, if undemanding, entertainment. After long delays caused by the pandemic, we finally get to see The King’s Man, a sort of origins tale, which explains how the Kingsman Agency came into being.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a very different kettle of fish – some of which is well past its sell-by date. It isn’t that Vaughn’s screenplay (written this time without Jane Goldman) is short on ideas. There are just too many of them, fighting with each other for breathing space and frankly as risible as the proverbial box of frogs.

After the violent death of his wife in South Africa, Lord Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a rich pacifist do-gooder swears to shield his young son from any possibility of warfare. Twelve years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) has grown to be a young man and, with the world hurtling headlong towards the conflict of the First World War, he decides he wants to be involved. He’s blissfully unaware that, over the intervening years, his father has created a special network of spies, working alongside two of his trusted servants, Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). Working with other ‘domestics’ across the world, all with access to centres of government, the trio are able to gather evidence of any approaching catastrophe and take steps to avoid unnecessary lives being lost… yes, that really is the premise!

Cue a series of unlikely adventures, with Oxford and son working alongside Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance), being present at the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand and even taking on Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) in a martial-arts infused punch-up (actually one of the films better sequences). Meanwhile Tom Hollander struggles with a triple role as three of history’s most famous cousins – King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas – and ultimately, we learn that the entire war has been engineered by… No, I can’t tell you. Not without being embarrassed by the sheer absurdity of it. Put it this way. I seriously doubt you’ll see it coming.

While it’s true there are a couple of excellent action set-pieces in the later stretches of the film, there’s a long grim wait before we get to them, during which we are treated to a parade of caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On film. There are also some conspiracy theories that frankly beggar belief. The final straw is the use of Dulce et Decorum est to pass comment on the senseless slaughter of the First World War. While Fiennes reads it beautifully, it’s hard not to imagine Wilfred Owen spinning in his grave as Vaughan makes a desperate attempt to have his Bakewell Tart and eat it.

The overall message here seems to be that humanity always depends on rich toffs to step in and bail them out of trouble when, once again, the rest of us make a mess of things. Fiennes, a superb actor, is worthy of better material than he’s given here and I’m not referring to the tailoring.

It’s a great shame, because clearly a lot of time, effort and money has been expended on this production. Released on Boxing Day in an apparent attempt to hoover up the Christmas market, I seriously doubt this will recoup what must have been a considerable investment.

Even during the festive season, there’s only so much cheese an audience can swallow.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney