Film and drama Opinion

The crawdads are singing, but their tune is humdrum

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A young girl is accused of murder and must face her ultimate fight for survival against prejudice and the legal system. Digital editor Dan Jensen takes a look at the latest film being discussed by avid book fans.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is a new film directed by Olivia Newman based on the novel written by Delia Owens. Part murder mystery, part coming-of-age drama, the film was released to a wave of hype due to the source material being acclaimed as one of the best-selling books of all time.

The film tells the story of Catherine “Kya” Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young girl growing up in the North Carolina marshes in the 1950s. Abandoned by her family due to abuse at the hands of her father (Garret Dillahunt) and left to survive from a very young age, Kya discovers a talent for documenting the local flora and fauna through illustrations. In her teen years, she falls in and out of love with some of the local young men, one being a quarterback named Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Eventually, Chase falls victim to suspected foul play and his murder is blamed on Kya, who faces the death penalty if found guilty.

Where The Crawdads Sing explores themes of independence, courage and inclusivity. It’s as rich with themes as the cinematography is painted with lavish landscapes of green marshes under gorgeous sunrise skies. The film is truly beautiful to look at throughout much of the two-hour run time. But the heart of the story lies in the character of Kya, who is brought to life through some terrific direction and an outstanding performance by Edgar-Jones.

Kya’s life story is engaging and a real joy to watch unfold. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her and genuinely hope her story arc ends in triumph. As a child, she finds the courage to stand up to great adversity in her life and that bravery carries on through her formative years. Daisy Edgar-Jones proves to be a solid actress here and every emotional beat is completely believable and interesting.

Harris Dickinson is delightfully loathsome as Chase, a character whose body is discovered in the opening of the film and throughout the narrative, it’s easy to understand why someone would want him removed from the land of the living. On the flip side, we have a character named Tate (Taylor John Smith) who is the complete opposite and provides balance to the love triangle. Both actors were fine in their roles and made the characters interesting enough.

Veteran actor David Strathairn rounds out the cast as Tom Milton, a lawyer assigned to Kya’s case and who is determined to save her from execution. While his performance was fine, it’s the murder mystery element that is the film’s weakest part. Unlike great courtroom dramas of the past, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, the crime story here is rather dull.

The film is told in a non-linear fashion, with the murder trial divided by flashbacks of Kya’s life story. But the latter is far more interesting than the trial, which should give the viewer a reason to truly fear for Kya’s fate. But the two stories feel muddled when stitched together and in the end, Where The Crawdads Sing turns out to be a slightly jumbled mess with no real cohesion.

Had the film boasted a gripping murder mystery, it would have been far better and possibly up there with this year’s best films. Had we been able to delve more into the police investigation and known about more evidence (Kya is arrested based on a knitted hat being in her possession and similar threads found on the victim — and that’s all we get), it could have been something great. But as it stands, the murder mystery aspect falls way short of being anywhere near as interesting as watching Kya surviving in the world.

Which is a shame, because Where The Crawdads Sing boasts some wonderful cinematography, captivating performances and authentic production design recreating the periods of the ‘50s and ‘60s. It's worth noting that the end of the film holds quite an enjoyable surprise, but the less said about that for now, the better.

The film has so much going for it and is worth checking out if there’s nothing else on, but overall it’s probably not one that will bring the viewer back for repeat viewings.

★★☆☆

Where The Crawdads Sing is now showing in cinemas across Australia.

You can follow digital editor Dan Jensen on Twitter @danjensenmovies or check out his YouTube channel, Movie Talk with Dan Jensen.

Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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