Where The Crawdads Sing has been adapted from the novel by Delia Owens, which became an overnight hit and spent months at the top of bestseller charts around the world. Reese Witherspoon knows a hit when she sees one (see Little Fires Everywhere, Gone Girl and Big Little Lies) so it was no surprise when she announced she’d bought the rights to produce the film.
This weekend, that film hits UK cinemas, complete with a soundtrack by Taylor Swift and actress-of-the-moment Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People) in the starring role. Anticipation is high, so we’re pleased to say that those who loved the book won’t be disappointed, while those who haven’t read it will have the extra thrill of not knowing the conclusion of the case as the opening credits roll.
Where The Crawdads Sing tells the story of Catherine Danielle Clark, known to her family as Kya. In the early 1950s, the family of six live on the edge of a North Carolina town right in the marshlands, existing simply in a slightly tatty home, painting and exploring the water in their small motorboat. After a series of dangerous episodes involving their alcoholic patriarch, Ma leaves the marsh, never to return. Once Pa (a genuinely menacing Garret Dillahunt, 12 Years A Slave) turns his abusive attention to his children, they leave one by one until just Kya remains. For a while, the two live alongside each other in peace – the watchful, resilient Kya quickly learning to keep out of his way – but then Pa leaves, and young Kya must raise herself to adulthood.
For years, rumours of the ‘marsh girl’ haunt nearby town Barkley Cove, isolating Kya from her community. Encouraged by Jumpin’ – owner of the local store – and his wife Mabel, Kya attends school but lasts just one day in the face of relentless bullying. She begins fishing for mussels to make enough money to eat. With no friends or family, the marsh becomes both her companion and her source of education. But as she turns 18, she’s drawn to two young men from town.
First, there’s Tate Walker. A former friend of her older brother Jodie, Tate is the first person (besides Jumpin’ and Mabel) to engage Kya in conversation. Winning her approval by showcasing his own fondness for nature, he expands her world by teaching her how to read and write. Soon, the two are inseparable, but when Tate leaves for college, Kya is once again abandoned by someone she cares for.
She’s not alone for long. High-school quarterback, chiselled jawline, Chase Andrews is the most popular boy in town – and he soon becomes intrigued by Kya’s wildness and beauty. Slowly, she learns to trust him and begins to soften his edges as their secret relationship allows him to engage in a simpler life away from town. Through both relationships, Kya becomes more ingratiated into the outside world, but when one of the boys is found dead, she is immediately cast by the Barkley Cove community as the main suspect.
Daisy Edgar-Jones is the best thing about the film. Expressive and believable, despite a few clunky pieces of script direct from the book, she really embodies Kya and breathes empathy into the character. There’s just one criticism: she never truly looks unkempt or ‘wild’ – and neither does her ‘shack’ – which in turn makes the townsfolk’s fear and disgust towards her seem slightly unbelievable. And her volatile childhood isn’t given quite enough screentime, meaning newcomers might struggle to understand just how all five members of her family could leave a vulnerable eight-year-old utterly alone.
There’s also a bit of distractingly obvious CGI at the start and end of the film, and though it’s a romantic drama at heart, some might find parts of the romance scenes a bit cheesy. The strength of the film is that it’s equally heartening and shocking. The courtroom drama is compelling – thanks to David Strathairn as Kya’s kindly lawyer Tom – as is her relationship with Jumpin’ and Mabel. But the sudden violent scenes make a lasting impact too, shattering the calm and making you flinch with their brutality.
Delia Owens is currently embroiled in a case arguably more thrilling than her bestseller – she’s wanted for questioning by Zambian police about a murder in the 1990s. Whatever happens there, this is a slow-burning, compelling and beautifully shot film that will make you appreciate the wilderness within our natural surroundings. And with Disney+ crime drama Under The Banner of Heaven coming out in the UK next week, we’re also looking forward to seeing even more of Edgar-Jones.
Where The Crawdads Sing is in cinemas from today.