In Tell It to the Bees, Annabel Jankel’s adaptation of Fiona Shaw’s book, Holliday Grainger plays single mother Lydia, a woman shunned by her community and abandoned by her loathsome husband who must find work and support both herself and her son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk).
When the reserved Dr. Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) moves back into town, Charlie strikes up an unlikely friendship with her over some bees. She tells him that he can tell his secrets to the bees and so begins a bond that keeps the boy happy when the world is crumbling around him. And with things getting increasingly more desperate for Lydia, she and Charlie end up moving in with the doctor. With the move, though, comes the rumours of Jean’s past indiscretions and the potential negative influence that may have on young Charlie.
Grainger is absolutely phenomenal as Lydia, brilliantly exploring the many sides to her character. Her chemistry with both Paquin and Selkirk is really engaging to watch. Lydia is a woman on the edge, as things go from bad to worse, and it’s easy to see why her desperation would send her to the only person who’s shown her any sort of kindness in this hateful community. As the relationship between the two women develops, though, it’s brilliant to see that kindness develop into a love that shows both of them that they are worth far more than they’ve been told. And if you can get past Paquin’s questionable accent, the connection itself is really well done, showing all the weight of past and present traumas each woman brings with her to this new and unexpected relationship.
Sadly, after a rather promising start, the film becomes very muddled and underdeveloped which is just distracting from the central story. We never really understand why Lydia is treated so abominably by everybody and her husband’s casual disregard for her and their son – and the sanctity of marriage! – is treated as if it’s entirely normal and warranted. We get one line of scorn from her sister-in-law about her being a wild one and comments about her loving to dance and that’s supposed to be sufficient explanation.
Added to this are a few scenes of horrific violence which – while perhaps true to the 1950s setting – seem entirely unnecessary and gratuitous in the film, thrown in more for shock value than actual character development, especially as the acts themselves come and go with no actual justice, ramifications or even discussion. This is made worse by the ‘bad’ characters in the tale not having any scope to show even a shred of humanity or motivation. There’s no complex back story or hidden depth. They’re just pantomime villains. Had their characters been developed a little more broadly, their acts might have landed better.
There are so many potentially fantastic threads in Tell It to the Bees: societal expectation vs desire and happiness, shame vs pride, motherhood, family, being treated as an outsider… it’s all there. Sadly, all that potential is wasted on a muddled script, unnecessary violence, a distracting accent and underdeveloped motives and back stories.