From Disobedience to Lizzie to The Favourite to Vita & Virginia, it feels like the last year or so has been a better than average time when it comes to complex, interesting stories involving romances between female protagonists. The world of literature is always ripe for a big screen adaptation on this front, and just in time to provide an alternative to the Spider-Mans and Lion Kings of this summer, along comes a period drama to add another chapter to the ever expanding catalogue of LGBTQ+ cinema.
Based on a 2009 novel by British author Fiona Shaw, Tell It To The Bees tells the story of a complicated affair between two women in 1950s conservative Scotland. After being evicted from her home, single mother Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) befriends the recently returned new town doctor Jean Markham (Anna Paquin), moving to become her housekeeper with her young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk). As the two women quickly begin to fall for one another, Charlie’s innocent suspicions and confusions cause him to set off a chain of events that threaten to disrupt the fabric of his life family life.
On the whole, Tell It To The Bees is a solid enough drama that runs along at a pleasing pace. Not remarkable, not unremarkable, just very, very ‘fine’. The meat of the central drama is intriguing and engaging, but there are definitely a few suspect devices that I’m not quite sure about. The film’s titles refers to young Charlie’s fascination and connection with the bee hives on Jean’s estate and an old fashioned belief about telling the insects one’s secrets to help them thrive. In a metaphorical sense this provides an interesting outlet for Charlie’s frustrations and feelings, but the story takes quite a literal turn with his abilities to control the bees that many viewers will find eye roll worthy, myself included.
In terms of the richness of the narrative, the story definitely evokes the tone of something like 2007’s Atonement, but perhaps doesn’t achieve such refined and striking results. One senses that the finished film product might suffer from the usual problem of not having enough time to develop its themes and characters compared to the novel source material. It’s very hard to translate hundreds of pages of woven story in to a brisk 100 minute movie, but for the most part the filmmakers do a good enough job. This isn’t a movie that is going to break any ground or steal any headlines, but as a perfectly acceptable cinematic accompaniment to what I can only assume is a perfectly acceptable book, it does pretty much what it says on the tin.
In the role of Lydia Weekes, Holliday Grainger is definitely the most stand out presence in the film. Lydia is pitted against the dour, repressed backdrop of the Scottish setting as a rebellious outsider from the north of England, and Grainger portrays this energy really effectively. She succeeds in showing the perfect amounts of vulnerability and strength in the role. Vulnerability at the start as a recently walked out on single mother, estranged from family, through to strength at the end to stand up to the prejudiced views of her peers and in her fierce protective love her of son.
Anna Paquin as Doctor Markham takes a little more time to settle into her role, battling with a Scottish accent that I think lands on something acceptable. Paquin tends to bring an air of enigmatic awkwardness to everything she does, and it suits the character here, a woman returned to her small town with the memory of a sexual scandal still in the minds of some. As a duo, Grainger and Paquin share a quite satisfying chemistry, not the most electric I’ve ever seen but far from being lifeless.
It feels mean to point out given his age, but Gregor Selkirk does slightly let the side down as young Charlie. He’s a young kid and this looks to be his debut credited feature performance, so I can let a lot slide, but the fact is that Charlie’s character is a really important one within the context of the narrative, a lot weighs on his emotive reactions and actions, and Selkirk just doesn’t quite cut it for me. At this point in the game, child performances are no longer things that have to be hit and miss. I mentioned Atonement before, and you certainly don’t get a young Saoirse Ronan type feat here.
Overall, Tell It The Bees is a watchable period drama that, whilst being flawed, certainly isn’t ‘bad’. Don’t expect to be completely wowed, but at the same don’t expect to be completely unbothered either. The performance of Holliday Grainger in particular is one worth a watch, and if you like to keep tabs on the state of CGI bees in cinema, then by all means get involved!