Daisy Edgar-Jones does what she can with a quiet character and an uneven script in Where The Crawdads Sing.
Olivia Newman directs this adaptation of Delia Owens’ 2018 novel of the same name. One of the best-selling books of all time, Where The Crawdads Sing tells the tale of Catherine ‘Kya’ Clarke (played in the film by a timid Daisy Edgar-Jones), a girl abandoned by her family in the marshes of North Carolina in 1952. Growing up alone and learning to fend for herself, she gains a reputation among the nearby townsfolk as the strange and terrifying ‘Marsh Girl’.
It’s clear from the very beginning that the film wants us, like Kya, to be intimately familiar with the geography of the swamp – to know very well the marshes, the rivers, and the wildlife that inhabits it. It’s not exactly picturesque, but it is atmospheric. The colour palette is often somewhat murky, but when it comes to the animals, the insects, the birds, Where The Crawdads Sing really hones in on them. By the end it feels as though we too have lived there as long as our protagonist.
But it wastes no time getting to the point, which is quite simply a murder. We see a body in the marsh, that of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), then we see Kya being arrested for the crime, with almost everyone already assuming that she’s guilty. The only one willing to defend her is local retired lawyer Tom Milton (played by David Strathairn, who brings with him a kindly face and the required dignity and gravitas).
This is one thread that the film’s narrative follows, providing a courtroom drama which focuses its energy on repeatedly making the point that classism and prejudice are bad. It’s a simple message, and one that’s really beaten into the heart of the film in a heavy-handed way. Strathairn’s big moment is even a monologue preaching this point, when the second story thread following Kya’s life up until the trial has already shown us how much she’s suffered.
This is an unfortunate role for Edgar-Jones. She’s proven through her incredible work in Fresh that she can play outspoken, witty characters. Yet Kya is usually incredibly timid and soft-spoken. It’s rare that we see her talk back to someone or defend herself, and therefore it’s impossible for Edgar-Jones’ performance to make much of an impression. She’s just not given enough to work with.
The second thread of the story is what really causes the film to become bloated and overlong. We follow Kya from childhood to the present day, and witness all of the hardships that come with being an outsider. As we’re taken through the domestic abuse, disappointments, and physical violence she’s endured throughout the years, it’d be safe to say that Where The Crawdads Sing is often a thoroughly miserable watch. Most of the townspeople shun her, and the ones that don’t, hang around because of the air of mystery surrounding the ‘Marsh Girl’.
Some of the quieter moments make for calming interludes between these scenes, but they also contribute little to the overall plot and are partly responsible for the bloat that slows down the movie’s pacing. It does at least allow for Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr. to shine as an extremely likeable local couple.
Even the outright happy moments, namely where Kya meets and falls in love with Tate (Taylor John Smith) expose problems with the script. Despite the effort to create some lightheartedness, things are accidentally taken too far and what we end up with is a silly, cliched romance. The characters gasp in awe at the beautiful landscape around them, and that’s apparently their cue to kiss as though they’re being pulled together by magnets. The romance itself also becomes increasingly predictable.
As the two storylines begin to meet and time catches up to itself, there are small hints and bits of evidence that begin to appear with increasing frequency. However, the one bit of evidence in question and the clues peppered throughout have surprisingly little influence on the outcome of the initial, present day narrative.
Where The Crawdads Sing has a bittersweet ending which will be familiar to those who’ve read the novel. In some ways, it’s a satisfactory conclusion. However, it fast forwards through the characters’ lives after the trial, not allowing the immediate effect of the verdict to be properly felt and dulling the ending’s impact.
As a whole, it’s a film that lingers on the years-long suffering of a quiet young girl, and there’s little reprieve from that misery. It may be atmospheric, but it’s also overlong, wastes the talent of Daisy Edgar-Jones, and is really pretty bleak.
Where The Crawdads Sing is released in UK cinemas on 22nd July.
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