Where the Crawdads Sing (M, 125 minutes)
The fanfare launching this movie about a fiercely independent young woman living in the swamp wilderness who becomes a naturalist and author hardly seems necessary. If best-seller lists are anything to go by, an audience already exists. Ready-made and keen to see the screen adaptation of a novel that has dominated US bestseller lists at Amazon and The New York Times.
Famous names are attached, the actress-producer Reese Witherspoon and singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, giving it a thumbs-up that ensures investors will be happy. So, is this movie bound to be a hit, with its target audience, at least? We will see.
Having feisty Witherspoon as one of the executive producers, and an original song composed and performed by Swift dropped into the score, is a gift for the filmmaker, but director Olivia Newman, working off a screenplay by Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild), has hardly capitalised on it. Where the Crawdads Sing has surprisingly little oomph, and is really rather bland.
I was looking forward to immersing myself for two hours in the mysterious, menacing beauty of the swamplands of North Carolina, even if the shoot was near New Orleans. I believed I was up for some Southern Gothic set among the alligators, crustaceans with that funny name, and trees festooned with Spanish moss. If only. The cinematography by Polly Morgan is lovely, but the way the film is put together has drained her images of atmosphere.
Although doe-eyed Edgar-Jones looks wiry and strong, it is hard to see her as anything but innocent, pure and uncomplicated.
The early voiceover describing the natural environment holds some promise, suggesting that the writing in the source material, the book by naturalist and scientist Delia Owens, might be a good read. Author Owens has had an amazing life, including many years spent in the Kalahari, Africa, working with hyenas and leopards on wild game reserves. The photos on her website confirm she is a gutsy woman, which would been something to celebrate too, had her novel had more impact on screen.
The setting is the late 1960s in backwoods America, where Kya Clark (English actress Daisy Edgar-Jones) lives alone in what was once the family home deep in the swamp, where the best way to get around is a tinny with an outboard. Everyone has left - her mother in flight from a violent husband, then her older siblings one by one, and finally the alcoholic father himself, who goes into town one day and is never seen again. At least he had passed some of his survival skills on to his youngest child before he left. Otherwise, she would hardly be a credible "marsh girl", at all.
Encouraged by town lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn), Kia takes herself to school in town, only to decide on her first day that she is better off learning from nature. Literacy is an issue, but the heavy-handed plotting will soon fix that.
Kya's other connection with the local community is the kindly black couple who run a local general store and help out with food and clothing. Mabel (Michael Hyatt) and Jumpin' (Sterling Macer Jnr) become like surrogate parents.
When she matures, Kya attracts the attention of young local men Tate (Taylor John Smith) and Chase (Harris Dickinson), who in vastly different ways will spell trouble for her. And she wonders whether she was only ever meant to do life by herself, anyway.
When Chase's body is discovered at the base of a fire tower, the community turns on her, deeply suspicious of the strange, feral outsider and rushing to judgement. Treating her as though she were a crone out there in the swamp, rather than a solitary woman who had become a serious naturalist and published author. However, as things transpire, the witch analogy falls away.
As a feral woman-child, Kia looks too scrubbed and well-dressed for the life she is supposed to be leading. Although doe-eyed Edgar-Jones looks wiry and strong, it is hard to see her as anything but innocent, pure and uncomplicated. But hey, who is worried about plausibility or realism here?
For a while now, there has been some disturbing background circulating in the media on Owens. One wonders what to make of this, just as one wonders what to make of the justice in the final big reveal.
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