Based on Fiona Shaw’s beloved novel of the same name, Tell it to the Bees is the story of a struggling single mother living in rural Scotland in the 1950s, and her relationship with the small town’s new doctor. Abandoned by her estranged husband and unable to pay rent, Lydia (Holliday Grainger) and her son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) are taken in by Dr Jean (Anna Paquin), who has returned to her childhood home to take over her late father’s surgery. The film begins tentatively, but doesn’t make it difficult to guess which way the narrative is heading. Though Lydia and Charlie find happiness and support in their new home, Jean is followed by whispers of a past that led her to leave all those years ago.
Selkirk carries his role with great confidence, as Charlie wrestles with information he is unable to process. Instead, at Jean’s suggestion, he whispers his secrets to the bees, who become his trusty confidante. Grainger makes a striking turn as Lydia, struggling under the weight of her crumbling marriage and debt but drawing all of her strength from her son. She is witty, perseverant, and fiercely loving – even just her familiar Mancunian accent had me falling from the first word. On the other hand, Jean is much more reserved – even cold – in the beginning. The painful restriction of her emotions of course becomes clear as we learn more about her; Jean already knows who she is, and fears nothing more than to give in to her desires.
In its best moments, Tell it to the Bees portrays a touching image of lesbian kinship in a decade of deeply prejudiced social mores. With Jean, Lydia and Charlie find a newfound freedom despite the unconventional nature of their living arrangement and the piercing gazes of their neighbours. Their found family flourishes, cementing Jean and Lydia’s bond long before they feel able to express it physically. Grainger and Paquin have a wonderfully warm chemistry that simmers achingly throughout, the beguiling heart of the narrative’s slow-burn tension. However, as Lydia and Jean’s relationship grows more intense, Charlie begins to fear what this will mean for their future as a family.
It is the film’s third act where the fatal stumble is made; it is no secret that Lydia and Jean’s relationship is disapproved of by their community, but director Annabel Jankel makes the disappointing choice to surrender the love story to nauseating abuse and a bizarre redemption arc. The film also complicates its rhetoric with the addition of a parallel romantic subplot involving an interracial relationship, which receives a sliver of screen-time but somehow results in the film’s most appallingly violent scene. After setting up an intimate, heartfelt romance, what disappointingly follows is a troubling resolution that feels sorely regressive and discolours what could have been a beautifully simple love story.
by Megan Wilson
Meg (she/her) is a northern Film Studies grad with an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, now working in secondary education in London. When not wrangling her cats or playing football, she dreams of being a professor and writing endless books on lesbian cinema just because she can. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she’ll always have a soft spot for Matilda. Find her on Twitter.