After a special presentation premiere at 2018’s Toronto International Film Festival, Annabel Jankel’s lesbian love story Tell It to the Bees makes its way to the lineup for the 2020 Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Adapted from Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel of the same name by twins and writing pair Jessica and Henrietta Ashworth, Tell It to the Bees stars Anna Paquin (True Blood, The Piano) and Holliday Grainger (The Borgias, Great Expectations) in the leading roles.
Set in a small, quiet, nosey village town in Scotland in 1952, Lydia Weekes (Grainger) is dealing with the fallout of her husband leaving her while trying to solely support her son Charlie (played by young Gregor Selkirk in his first major film role). Charlie operates as a sort of viewing glass for Jankel’s audience, hearing, seeing and keeping the secrets of all that goes on in the town around him. Confident, scrappy, and well-mannered, Charlie is Lydia’s remaining happiness in the wake of her failed marriage, miserable factory job, and lack of family or supportive network.
Similarly to Lydia, Jean Markham (Paquin) is an outcast in the town. After rumours of her relationship with another woman circulated as a teen, Jean returns home to take over her father’s medical practice, much to the distaste of some locals. In addition to tending to patients, Jean is an avid beekeeper and her insects attract the interest of young Charlie. With him as a bridge, the two women meet and strike up a fast but powerful bond.
There are a number of themes present within Tell It to the Bees, and the concept of secrets and shame take centre stage throughout much of the story. In a time when anything beyond the hetero-normative standards drew mirth and disdain, the relationship between Jean and Lydia feels a little revolutionary. For Jean, Lydia is an affirmation that her attraction to women isn’t wrong. For Lydia, Jean becomes a new solace and provides her with the care and attention she was unable to find in her marriage.
And in the midst of their blossoming romance is Charlie and the bees. At the encouragement of Jean, Charlie spends much of the film telling the bees his deepest secrets and worries, ultimately building a bond with the small creatures; whether confused by the gossip or torn by the strain between his parents and family, both Charlie and the bees rise and fall with each other, with the bees often mirroring his moods as the tension of the narrative peaks.
With all these parts moving in tandem and set against the beautifully idyllic Scottish township, Tell It to the Bees should be a poetic addition to the growing queer cinema sphere. Jankel does offer a visually engaging film, but its collective flaws prevent it from being a fully satisfying piece of film.
Despite being quite a well established actress, Paquin is fairly bland throughout the film. Her character really only makes an impact in the scenes driven by sexual desire, which makes one question the role she plays in Lydia’s character growth – is she just a sexual adventure for Lydia to enjoy or does she offer something more engaging? Based on how quickly their relationship develops, one can assume their relationship is more than physical but those aspects aren’t explored at length, which ultimately leaves the relationship as a whole feeling quite superficial. All of that paired with her average-at-best Scottish accent and her performance as a whole falls relatively flat.
Grainger, in comparison, is lively and engaging throughout the film. Carrying herself as a someone simply doing the best she can, Grainger is consistently endearing as a mother, as a lover, and as a woman. She is both soft and powerful, and capable of eliciting pure compassion from viewers. In terms of the partnership between herself and Paquin, Grainger’s performance carries the weight of both their characters right across the finish line.
As the young observer, Selkirk approaches this role as Charlie with the confidence of someone well-seasoned by the industry. Impressive considering his resume mostly includes unknown short films and television bit parts, Selkirk gives Charlie the wide-eyed wonder of a genuinely sensitive but caring young boy who takes in everything around him with curiosity and relative maturity.
Bookmarked by an altogether unnecessary narration by Billy Boyd (The Lord of the Rings franchise) as an adult Charlie and complete with an ending that does a disservice to its protagonists, Tell It to the Bees had the potential to not only be a great story, but a great queer story, and sadly falls into the trap of being another average adaptation of a widely praised body of work.