Showing influence of the works of authors Ian McEwan and Shelagh Delaney, Annabeth Jankel’s adaptation of Fiona Shaw’s 2010 novel Tell it to the Bees never quite reaches the emotional complexity and nuance of either author’s literary texts. Yet thanks to powerful performances from the central leads and a strong narrative momentum, the film manages to elevate itself from a by-the-numbers post-war period drama.
The film follows the developing relationship between working-class single mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger), and Dr Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) in an impoverished Scottish village in the 1950s. After Lydia’s timid, withdrawn son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) visits Dr Markham for an appointment, Lydia strikes up a close friendship with Jean, which gradually develops into a blossoming romance.
From their first interaction together, Grainger and Paquin give the film the narrative thrust that it lacks in the first 20 minutes, and effectively sustains audience interest throughout. Grainger superbly displays Lydia’s isolation as a single mother wounded by the cruelty of her estranged husband, as well as the character’s shift from platonic affection to romantic desire for Jean. Despite her Scottish accent wavering at times, Paquin also convinces, as a woman who develops passionate feelings towards Lydia, yet is often constrained by her fear of how she may be viewed by the local community. Both actors are the film’s greatest strength, drawing the audience into their potent relationship that is strained and exposed by their neighbours.
The rising action towards the final act of the film also prevents the pacing from becoming too focused on Jean and Lydia’s relationship. As the threat of a homophobic 1950s Scottish society creeps in, Lydia’s ex-husband (Emun Elliot, exemplifying conventional masculinity with a capital M) and sister-in-law (Kate Dickie) threaten to destabilize Lydia and Jean’s peace. The film shifts gears in its final third, with the use of cross-cutting between two sequences of rising action building to a cathartic narrative climax. This carefully paced narrative ensures that audience interest doesn’t lull, keeping them engaged in a plot-driven character study throughout.
Yet not all of the character or narrative strands are successful. The film’s shared DNA with the literary works of McEwan and Delaney is noticeable, such as a focus on a child’s perspective and the dreary setting of an impoverished British village. Yet the film lacks the nuance of McEwan and Delaney’s texts. A few too many close-ups of longing facial expressions clumsily signpost the romance of Jean and Lydia, when they have barely known each other. In addition, the film’s representation of an arch-conservative 1950s British village feels limited, with ideas about interracial relationships and the future of gay relationships in 20th century Britain never fully explored to their full potential. Most confusing, however, is the role of the titular insects in the narrative. Dr Markham’s beehives become a repeated visual image, yet their meaning remains confusing; an environmental metaphor? A representation of freedom? This imagery proves frustrating rather than intriguing, due to the bees repeated appearance at pivotal moments in the plot, and raises some logical issues with certain sequences.
Ultimately, the lack of subtlety that the premise offers prevents Tell it to the Bees from becoming a more complex examination of gay relationships in Britain post-World War II. However, the commitment of its leading actresses and the increasing tension created as the narrative unfolds makes for a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat conventional, period drama.