I’ve got good news for all you fans of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing: It’s exactly the movie you’re looking for. The big-screen adaptation of the best-selling 2018 novel is faithful to a fault, with lyrical shots of marshland and wildlife, golden-hued romance, a woman educating herself, and a murder mystery to make it all go down easy. I, on the other hand, dared to hope for something better than the book, something that translated the book’s thrills into cinematic terms. Despite some solid qualities, this ain’t it.
The story picks up in late 1969 in the Carolina marshes, where Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is arrested for the murder of Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), the scion of wealth whom she’d been romantically involved with, and whose body is found near her isolated house. Kya, a social outcast from extreme poverty known as “The Marsh Girl” to the citizens of the nearby town, tells her story to the defense lawyer (David Strathairn) who comes out of retirement to plead her innocence. The movie flashes back to 1953, when her mother (Ahna O’Reilly) leaves after being punched in the face once too often by her drunken father (Garret Dillahunt), who later disappears into the marsh as well and leaves Kya to fend for herself. The task is made easier when animal-loving local boy Tate Walker (Taylor John Smith) teaches her to read and sets her on a course toward writing and illustrating books about the birds and insects around her home.
This is the big-screen debut of Olivia Newman, a TV director who made one feature for television. She does quite well in the early going, shifting between timelines efficiently and showing how her past has led to her current situation standing trial for a capital crime. I’m glad, too, that the movie follows the book and resists the Hollywood temptation to have the defendant take the witness stand, which would have been bad legal strategy and likely would have made for bad drama, too.
Unfortunately, that early momentum is lost around the time when she first falls in love with Tate. Where the movie needed to be leaner and sharper, there’s too much of Kya’s voiceover narration taken from the book. The Carolina marshes, which are played by the Gulf Coast area around New Orleans, look too good, too. Everything’s too lit and too clean, and Kya doesn’t strike me as the type to shave her legs as silky smooth as we continually see them. I needed more of the visual grit of Winter’s Bone or Beasts of the Southern Wild or even The Hunger Games. Instead, the gloss here gives me flashbacks to those awful movie adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ novels.
I did come into this looking forward to seeing Edgar-Jones, whose fawn-like beauty is the only clue that she’s the same actress who played an Irish bookworm so memorably on TV’s Normal People. The story places an unforgiving spotlight on her, and she is great in the scene when Kya discovers that Chase has been cheating on her and runs out to the beach to scream at the ocean. The townsfolk are supposed to be set against Kya because she’s weird, and the performance here isn’t weird enough, but especially during the trial when she silently reacts to the testimony being given, she generates more presence here than lead actresses usually do in such films. (And just like in Normal People, you’d never guess that she is from London.)
The movie’s release has been accompanied by some serious allegations against Owens’ previous career as a conservationist, and I’m even more disturbed by her attitudes towards Africans than by her possible involvement in the murder of a game poacher / trespasser / poor bastard who wandered into the wrong part of the bush. (Though if you know about those, you might be unsettled by Kya’s line, “I don’t believe there is morality in nature.”) I do think her novel could have been made into a crackling thriller by filmmakers who were willing to take some chances, perhaps ones with the resumé or the gumption to resist pressure from Hollywood executives. As it is, Where the Crawdads Sing comes out as a prestige movie that suffers from too much fidelity. It’s frustrating to contemplate the better movie that this could have been.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Starring Daisy Edgar-Jones. Directed by Olivia Newman. Written by Lucy Alibar, based on Delia Owens’ novel. Rated PG-13.