Also reviewed this week: Notre-Dame On Fire and Unstuck In Time
Where The Crawdads Sing 15A, 125mins
First things first. Crawdads are crayfish, an elusive mini-lobster once common in the marshlands of North Carolina. Do they sing? I suspect it’s a poetic metaphor, something this film is positively awash with.
Directed by Olivia Newman, produced by Reese Witherspoon, Where The Crawdads Sing is based on Delia Owens’ novel, an American publishing phenomenon which has to date sold 12 million copies.
As it’s Owens’s debut novel, and she wrote it in her 70s, the book’s success would be a feel-good story were it not for the dark shadow cast by her extended family’s conservation exploits in Africa, which allegedly involved a shoot-to-kill policy towards poachers.
But never mind about that, or any other buzzkill issues like domestic violence or racism or societal iniquity in the old south, because this is a fantasy, a silly melodrama with fluffy ecological overtones.
Butterflies flit and CGI herons swoop as we enter the marshes of Barkley Cove, circa 1969, but all is not well in the world of men. A body has been found, identified as one Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson), former high school football star, entitled arse and young man about town who’s discovered with his head caved in at a crime scene bereft of clues.
That doesn’t stop the local cops from pinning the murder on Katherine ‘Kya’ Clarke (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a wild young woman who lives alone in the marshes and is despised and feared by the townfolk.
The ‘marsh girl’ is hunted down, jailed and put on trial with what seems like the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Retired lawyer Tom Milton (David Strathairn) smells a rat, and offers to defend her. When he shows Kya kindness, she opens up, and tells him her extraordinary story.
The youngest of five siblings, Kya is raised in a swamp shack and lives in fear of her violent and unpredictable father (Garret Dillahunt). When the girl’s just six, her mother leaves, followed in quick succession by her older siblings. And by the time she’s 10, Kya has been abandoned altogether.
Forced to fend for herself, she learns how to harvest mussels from a nearby beach, and sells them to Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer Jr.), a kindly African-American who runs a gas station and convenience store.
He and his wife Mabel (Michael Hyatt) take Kya under their wing, but the girl grows up unschooled and wild, ignorant of social norms. And when she becomes lissom, and teenage, her problems with men begin.
Local boy Tate (Taylor John Smith) is at first a force for good. After spotting Kya in the swamps, he teaches her how to read and write, and is amazed by her knowledge of nature, her skills as an artist. But Kya has trust issues, which are compounded when Tate takes off for college and abandons her to the lecherous gaze of Chase Andrews, a chippy monomaniac.
Watching Where The Crawdads Sing, I was reminded of those fruity John Grisham adaptations that were popular in the 1990s, portentous thrillers with bog-standard plots and faux social consciences.
This is like those only slower and, after a relatively component opening sequence and a whistle-stop tour of Kya’s Dickensian childhood, the film gets bogged down in her variously icky romances, leaving the whole court case scenario to fend for itself.
It is, in a sense, a tale without jeopardy, and the ‘twist’ late on is not exactly flabbergasting. It rests, like everything else in this flabby and overwritten film, on the surface, gliding along the smooth marsh waters and closely investigating nothing.
It is, then, something close to a miracle that Daisy Edgar-Jones imbues her wafer-thin character with visible depth, and soul. While saying nothing, she manages to hint at the pain involved in growing up despised, and on the outside of everything.
Then again, everyone in this film looks best when saying nothing.
Rating: Two Stars
Notre-Dame On Fire (No Cert, IFI, 110mins)
Notre-Dame is the notional centre-point of France. When road signs say, Paris 150km, they mean 150km to the square in front of the great cathedral, which has dominated the nation’s capital for almost a millennium.
Imagine the trauma, then, that gripped the country on April 15, 2019, when a fire that began inside the old roof quickly became a conflagration, which brave firefighters struggled to extinguish while locals watched from the quays.
Jean-Jacques Annaud’s painstaking reconstruction of events is a drama rather than a documentary, and the odd clunky piece of dialogue is overcome by solid scene-setting and the brilliant intercutting of real and invented footage.
There’s jeopardy too, as firefighters struggle to make it through rush-hour traffic and find locked doors at the top of winding stone staircases. Meanwhile, the fire spreads along oak beams made from trees planted in the time of Charlemagne. Annaud’s film shows how wholescale disaster was averted by the incredible bravery of firefighters, but also gives you a sense of what was lost.
Rating: Four stars
Unstuck In Time (15A, 126mins)
In 1982, Robert B Weide wrote a letter to his literary idol, Kurt Vonnegut, asking if he could make a documentary on him. To his enormous shock, Vonnegut replied: little did either of them know that the film would take 40 years to make.
Weide funded Unstuck In Time himself, returning to it in fits and starts whenever he could. In addition to one-on-one interviews with Vonnegut and his children, Weide gained access to home movies made by the writer’s family, and weaves all this into a fascinating collage.
Vonnegut liked to laugh. Fond of bad puns and dodgy jokes, he used humour as a defence mechanism, but also as a satirical tool. In books like Breakfast Of Champions and God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, he wryly lambasted American capitalism, but he was best known for Slaughterhouse-Five, a surreal and harrowing account of his wartime experiences during the bombing of Dresden.
Fame came late to Vonnegut, and he didn’t handle it well, but he emerges in Weide’s fine documentary as an honourable writer, a sincere man.
Rating: Four stars