Tell it to the Bees, an independent British drama released in 2018, is finally having its release in American art house cinemas, though it reaches theaters in the UK in June. The film is adapted by director Annabel Jankel (co-creator of Max Headroom) from the novel of the same name by Fiona Shaw (the writer, not the actor), with a screenplay by sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth (Dixi, Killing Eve). This love story, which happens in a small town, in post-war Scotland, speaks to the judgement and fear of imprisonment same-sex couples had at the time, since homosexuality was only decriminalized in England in 1967. It also exposes the lack of agency, and often suffocating restrictions and expectations set for women, while showing that love, and the falling into it, is always beautiful.
The tale is centered on the remembrances of a man, Charlie Weekes, looking back on his childhood. Young Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) lives in a small town with his mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger), who barely ekes out a living working at a factory after the father of her child, an abusive bigot who still lives in town, abandons her.
“This town is too small for secrets,” says the father of a teenaged Jean Markham (Anna Paquin), after an incident that exposed her sexual orientation becomes a small town scandal, leading him to send her away to school. Years later, and returning to take over her deceased father’s medical practice, Jean is laying low, committed to helping the community. Jean and Charlie take a shine to each other, which leads to her meeting Lydia. Their friendship grows as Lydia takes Jean into her confidence about her struggles, and Jean teaches Charlie about the hive of bees that lives in her back yard. What starts as friendship grows into love, but two women loving each other, especially in the 50s, is a sure way to being ostracized and demonized. It’s clear women are supposed to do what they are told, and stay very tightly to the path expected of them. In mid-century small village living, independence, autonomy, and personal choice for women are an option, as long as they know the result will be isolation and financial ruin.
Stars Grainger and Paquin have spectacular chemistry, bringing tenderness and authenticity to the love story. That in itself makes Tell it to the Bees compelling to watch. However, anything bad that can happen to and around them does, from rape and a myriad of physical abuses, to the death of children. The whimsy and joy audiences derive from Charlie ‘talking to the bees’, is in stiff competition with the melancholy they’ll feel from the misfortune happening in slow motion. It veers the film into more conventional territory, especially with the altered ending that follows a very old-world conclusion, as opposed to the happier one offered in the original novel. This will have fans of the book, especially those who land firmly in the Carol camp of LGBTQ storytelling, feeling underserved and a little betrayed.
One assumes the choices made are meant to offer more powerful statements about the history of working women and what was, and sometimes still is, required to survive. In any case, while the ending will have viewers split on how they feel about the movie as a whole, Tell it to the Bees is ultimately a love story, and Grainger and Paquin make it a good one.
3 out of 5 stars