Pride Month, Retrospective Review: Tell It to the Bees

Year: 2018
Runtime: 108 Minutes
Director: Annabel Jankel
Writers: Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth, based on the novel by Fiona Shaw
Stars: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Billy Boyd, Gregor Selkirk

By Bianca Garner

Have you ever encountered a film in which its ending spoils everything about the viewing experience for you? Well, this was my experience watching “Tell It to the Bees” a film which I enjoyed a good proportion of the first and second act, only to have my investment and enjoyment of the film be completely ruined by its final act. Matters were made worse when I read up on the book and how drastically the film’s end differs compared to the actual book’s ending. 

It was an eye-opening experience as it made me realise just how often I have come across a film involving a gay/lesbian relationship with a tragic ending. Compared to how many romantic films which centre around a hetrosexual relationship, films in which the romance is between two members of the same sex, seem to end with the couple being unable to continue their relationship for whatever reason (death and/or prejudice for example). How is this fair? How is this still happening in 2020, for goodness sake?

Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger & Gregor Selkirk in Tell It to the Bees (2018) © NEIL DAVIDSON LOUISE BEATTIE

“Tell It to the Bees” was a film that showed so much promise but just left me completely baffled by it’s third act where it seems the director (Annabel Jankel) and screenwriters (Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth) wanted to torture not only the audience but all of its main characters, especially the two main female leads played by Holliday Grainger and Anna Paquin. By the time the film comes to a close, you feel so drained and emotionally battered that you’ve forgotten how promising and heartwarming this film was when it began. 

“It was an eye-opening experience as it made me realise just how often I have come across a film involving a gay/lesbian relationship with a tragic ending.”

The film takes place in 1950s Scotland, in a voiceover by Billy Boyd, Charlie tells us about his childhood, and the relationship between his mother Lydia (Grainger) and the small town’s new doctor, Jean Markham (Paquin). The film spends its time nicely developing the relationship of Lydia and Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), essentially she’s a single-mother after her husband Robert (Emun Elliott), walked out on them. We see Lydia in a state of deep depression, breaking down while she peels potatoes or simply sitting in an armchair staring into space. Robert has left them penniless, and despite Lydia’s factory job, her earnings are not enough to support her and her son.

Anna Paquin, and Holliday Grainger in Tell It to the Bees (2018) © NEIL DAVIDSON LOUISE BEATTIE

Charlie is bullied at school, and the result of one fight sees him making a trip to the new doctor’s surgery. Jean is a breath of fresh air to the town, she’s kind and empathetic towards all of her patients, especially Charlie. Jean introduces Charlie to her bees, and tells him how to tell his secrets to the bees and bond with them. Jean’s and Charlie friendship has another result too, it brings Lydia and Jean together, and as a result the women begin a romantic relationship. However, in this small town, secrets don’t stay behind closed doors for long. 

“This doesn’t feel like a film that was made for an Lesbian audience, nor did it feel like it was made for fans of the book…This feels like it is pure Oscar bait of the worse kind.”

Firstly, I just want to express my admiration for how beautiful this film looks. The 1950s era has been lovingly reconstructed by the production designer, Andy Harris and the costume designer Alison Mitchell. The film’s cinematography by Bartosz Nalazek  is stunning, there is one aerial shot in particular where we follow Charlie and the bees that took my breath away and really elevated the film to a whole other level. In terms of the acting, both Paquin and Grainger are elightful, although it will take your ears time to adjust to Paquin’s Scottish accent. The supporting cast featuring Emun Elliott, Lauren Lyle and Kate Dickie are also worth highlighting too. 

Anna Paquin, and Holliday Grainger in Tell It to the Bees (2018) © NEIL DAVIDSON LOUISE BEATTIE

It’s just the other stuff surrounding these aspects that I take issue with. The film features a rape scene (told to us in flasback, and the actual rape isn’t depicted), there’s another attempted rape scene later in the film which was brutal and seemed to go on longer than the actual love scene between Lydia and Jean. There is also a botched abortion that takes place in the final act which felt like something out of “The Exorcist”, truly horrifying and sadistic. This doesn’t feel like a film that was made for an Lesbian audience, nor did it feel like it was made for fans of the book (why change the ending if it was for fans?). This feels like it is pure Oscar bait of the worse kind…one made from 10 or 15 years ago.

I think fellow In Their Own League writer, Jenni Hotz, brilliantly summed this film up in one sentence over at LetterBoxd: This is Trauma Porn- don’t waste your time! I’m inclined to agree. This really felt like an unnecessary film, and one that may have had good intentions behind it but ultimately did little for LGBTQ representation in film.

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