Translating a much-loved novel to the big screen is always a tricky task. With Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing, which has sold more than 12 million copies to date, the audience is big and the expectations are high. This cinematic version, produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, unfortunately doesn’t succeed in meeting them.
Daisy Edgar-Jones, a star on the rise after her incredible performance in BBC/Hulu series Normal People and playing a gutsy final girl in horror-thriller Fresh, is plunged into a swampy, period environment here. She is Kya, a solitary young woman left to fend for herself after her mother, then siblings, then abusive father, all desert her. Shunned by the townsfolk around her, it doesn’t take long for fingers to point in her direction when a man is found dead near her home.
You never quite buy the young, thin, beautiful, white Kya as a true outsider.
This murder accusation, and the trial deciding Kya’s fate, is the framing device for the film. Ditching the more chronological approach of the book, Lucy Alibar’s screenplay reveals the crime at the very top of the runtime, flashing backwards and forwards to fill in the gaps. This might not be an uncommon way to approach this kind of story, but it does dispel a certain amount of tension from the start — and the loose, feeble attempt at courtroom drama is nowhere near gripping enough to make it a setting we’re keen to return to.
Edgar-Jones’ natural charm, steely determination and convincing, almost-feral disposition, especially early on, keep you on Kya’s side, and Harris Dickinson impresses once again as charmingly sinister former quarterback Chase Andrews. He and Kya’s toxic, sometimes violent relationship adds some edge to this otherwise quite gentle movie — and though their dynamic is contrasted nicely by the safety and warmth Kya feels with all-American shrimper’s son Tate (Taylor John Smith), the latter pairing leaves a lot to be desired in terms of chemistry.
The trouble with this version of Where The Crawdads Sing is that you never quite buy the young, thin, beautiful, white Kya as a true outsider. The girl from the novel, covered in dirt and consumed by gnawing loneliness, is sanded down and smoothed out, her every thought over-explained by incessant voiceover. That treatment seems to have been applied to every other element of the film, too — so much so, it feels like it would be more at home in the BBC’s 8pm Sunday night slot than here on the big screen. The direction and cinematography are thoroughly conventional, lacking in much flavour or wonder, save for some beautiful sunset shots of the marshes, and the score is often saccharine and overbearing. For fans of the book, there will be some satisfaction in watching these characters come to life and the plot’s twists and turns play out — but for newcomers to this story, it is, unfortunately, underwhelming.