Film Review: Tell It to the Bees

23 July 19 words: Hilary Whiteside

Annabel Jankel's adaptation of Fiona Shaw's novel is screening at Broadway Cinema now... 

Director: Annabel Jankel

Starring: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Emun Elliot

Running time: 108 mins

Set in small town, post-war 1950s Scotland, Tell It to the Bees film explores the bigotry, and inadaptability of its people. Dr Jean Markham (Paquin) returns home after a considerable and rather mysterious absence to take over her father’s medical practice. In her medical role, she comes across Charlie following a playground scuffle and an unlikely relationship develops. Jean shares her love of bees with Charlie; she encourages him to communicate with the colony and ‘share his secrets.’ Her enthusiasm and direction provide the boy with a route to peace and tranquility, offering an escape from his disturbing life.  In fact, it is a miracle that Charlie survives his childhood, seemingly unblemished, considering the horrific shenanigans he is unwittingly forced to witnesses. 

Of course, there is more to the film than this. Charlie’s mother (Grainger) enters the plot and forms a relationship with Jean, much to the horror and shame of the townsfolk; this is way beyond their tolerance levels and their understanding. In this sense, the film explores a set of pioneers who were introducing progressive ideas way ahead of their times and of course, alienating many in society who felt a threat to their so far unchallenged existence. Topics such as racism, same-sex relationships and the emergence of the independent self-sufficient woman are explored, so too is the bigotry of small-town societies. Naturally, the bees play a significant part too. After all, they give the film its title. We are reminded of bees’ importance in nature as pollinators and man’s dependence on them.   

It’s socially and historically accurate but somehow, somewhere we’ve seen it all before.

The film is largely predictable in both narrative and setting. Grey, granite houses reflect the disposition of its inhabitants. Women are presented in an array of pretty tea dresses (how do they afford them on their wages at the mill?) Boys appear in the ubiquitous, grey flannel shorts, wearing granny knitted pullovers, biking around the countryside where, incidentally, the weather is generally sunny.  Little girls skip happily in the street (despite food shortages and abject poverty) reciting garbled rhymes. Of course, it’s socially and historically accurate but somehow, somewhere we’ve seen it all before. Call the Midwife? Vera Drake? There is, however, one slightly implausible divergence from this predictability when a rather scary swarm of bees is called into action superhero style.  And it has to be said, job well done! In fact, momentarily, one wonders whether the film’s genre has slid into the realms of horror or fantasy.   

There are a number of close shots of bees in their hive, very David Attenborough, where we are invited to compare the bees’ ordered, harmonious society with the intolerance of this particular 1950s Scottish society. It’s all very obvious. Yes, we get the metaphor; the freedom of the bees, their diligence, their productivity and their contribution to the land. However, maybe I was overthinking at this stage, but surely bees too are ruthless and don’t they reject misfits?      

Grainger is central to the film; she is the catalyst who moves the film forward. She’s vibrant, she’s natural she’s plausible.  Paquin on the other hand appears miscast; one can never really engage with her character, she’s cold and unattractive and largely unappealing.  Other characters play minor roles in the narrative and remain largely undeveloped on the side lines. Charlie simpered on occasions, which is probably an unfair assessment, but my tolerance levels at this stage had been worn down. Unfortunately, I couldn’t like this film.         

Did you know? Adapted from a novel by Fiona Shaw

Tell It to the Bees is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 25 July