Based on the novel by Fiona Shaw (not that one), Tell It To The Bees is the latest film by Annabel Jankel, a director whose most (in)famous work is the live-action movie of Super Mario Bros. The two films clearly couldn’t be more different from one another, although once you see the connection, you can’t help but want to make more. Still, for what it is, Tell It To The Bees, has much to offer, or at least it does when it knows what it wants to be. Set in a rural Scottish town after World War 2, the story follows Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger), whose husband has walked out on her and her son Charlie, leaving them close to destitution and eviction. After Charlie strikes up a bond with the new town doctor, Jean (Anna Paquin), he and Lydia soon move into her vast home, first as staff and then as friends. As the women’s friendship evolves, town gossip threatens to tear their new family apart.
Overall, the film is a sweet and quiet affair, traditional in form but willing to dig into thornier topics. There’s a tea-time coziness to this narrative, one that feels inviting to all ages and will certainly play well to older audiences seeking a nostalgic buzz. It feels like it could play on BBC One on a Sunday evening, just after Call the Midwife, and like that show, it’s got a pleasant but nervy stance on social issues. They may not all get the same amount of focus as one another, but the story still has time to tackle topics of class, gender, masculinity, race, sexuality, and reproductive health rights. This is a town populated mostly by women — the absence of so many men after the war is not commented upon but does not go unnoticed by the viewer — but their status as secondary to the ‘traditional’ family unit remains firmly in place. Lydia’s husband has abandoned them and shacked up with a new girl, but the town is quicker to pour scorn on her for the split. Jean, who has returned to her hometown after many years to fill her father’s position as the local physician, is so reviled by many in the community, both for being a woman and for her past, that they’d rather risk death than send for her services.
Within the smothering constraints of this small town, Jean and Lydia strike up a romance, and both Grainger and Paquin bring subtle shades of charm and vigor to their dynamic. Lydia is a former party girl who has been battered down by life, while Jean is the more cautious of the two, a formerly ‘respectable’ girl who has kept parts of herself locked away to prevent further heartache. Grainger is especially luminous and seems tailor-made for this era of storytelling. Despite having the same wonky Scottish accent she had in The Piano when she was a kid, Paquin brings just enough edge to her part as a woman all too used to living with barriers around her. Their chemistry isn’t exactly explosive, but this was never going to be a film about red hot fiery passions. It’s also an endless delight to see the sinfully underrated Kate Dickie on our screens, breathing life and adding new textures to a character who so easily could have been the stock b*tch.
Mostly, the major problem with Tell It To The Bees is that it’s a film torn between two intents. It can’t decide if it wants to be a Scottish Douglas Sirk melodrama or delve into full-blown Ken Loach-style kitchen sink realism. There are moments of hard-hitting social anxiety - including a forced abortion that proved a shock to the system - that land with such mighty force. Yet they’re quickly contrasted or often spliced with something more cloying and decidedly unreal. A gentler approach to tough material is not a bad idea, but the sudden burst of magical realism involving a boy who can possibly control bees (?!) tips things into more cloying territory and it simply doesn’t work. Indeed, it ultimately weakens the potency of this relationship and those myriad issues.
Tell It To The Bees is a film to be viewed more for warmth and comfort than anything truly challenging. While it has moments that pack a punch, the overall effect is one more welcoming than forceful. Still, for anyone seeking a gay period drama romance, this is a credible effort.