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.