Thursday, July 21, 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing – birds, beasties, bullying and betrayal in the marsh

The natural history embedded in the debut novel of Delia Owen jumps off the page and onto the cinema screen in Where the Crawdads Sing. The North Carolina waterways and marsh land, the insects, birds, crustaceans and molluscs are captured in glorious detail alongside their young documenter Kya.

Kya has grown up in a remote household that suffered from the domestic abuse of her alcoholic father which led to the departure of her mother, her siblings, and eventually even her father, leaving Kya to learn to survive and thrive on her own in the 1960s. She is known as ‘the Marsh Girl’ by the distrustful local townsfolk who never welcomed the family into their community and did nothing to protect the children. The only people looking out for her are Ma and Pa (Ahna O'Reilly and Garret Dillahunt) in the local store.

One lad she meets while pootling around the wetlands to collect mussels to sell takes an interest in her. Tate (Taylor John Smith) patiently schools Kya in the 3 Rs, and treating her with respect before completely ghosting her. A second young man Chase (Harris Dickinson) enters her life and is much less pure of heart and manipulates her emotions. His death is pinned on the strange Marsh Girl who the town has mythologised into a marsh monster. Her lawyer (David Strathairn) valiantly tries to deconstruct the mountain of flimsy speculation that is presented as evidence.

The film is constructed as a long series of flashbacks, occasionally interrupted by a courtroom drama. However, the flashbacks are much more interesting than the mundane legal scenes that are meant to sustain the sense of suspense. But we should be thankful that it’s only a two hour film and not a six-part mini-series.

Jojo Regina and then Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People) put life and soul into the central character, creating a warm albeit solitary persona who is more at home studying and drawing the marsh than interacting with the other humans who threaten to disrupt it and disturb her placid existence. Both their performances carry the somewhat undramatic scenes as we watch a girl grow up alone.

Much credit should go to the cinematographers who beautifully capture the birds and beasties of the marsh. And Kya’s shack and her archive of drawings are a tribute to the detailed eye of the production designers.

Ultimately, Where the Crawdads Sing is a story about mood. It’s about how a community can bully and betray someone who it should be protecting. It’s about alternative ways of living. About thriving and surviving when no one has your side.

Unfortunately, Where the Crawdads Sing is also about scratching your head to ask how a hermit can have such a natural sense of fashion and whether such an extensive wardrobe is realistic given their hand to mouth existence living off the marsh.

The final twist is true to the book but quite possibly unnecessary on film. Aside from prosecutor’s case in the court, the film leaves open at least one other explanation for the death at the heart of the story. The manner of the on-screen explanation, after more than two hours in the cinema mulling over the possibilities, somewhat ruined the feeling of intrigue.

Where the Crawdads Sing is being screened at the Queen’s Film Theatre and as well as The Strand, Omniplex, Movie House, Odeon and Cineworld cinemas. 

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