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TIFF Review: Tell It to the Bees

Tell It to the Bees
dir. Annabel Jankel
starring Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger

“You should tell the bees your secrets. Then they won’t fly away.”

Set in 1950s Scotland, Tell It to the Bees is the story of two women who must face a society that isn’t ready or willing to accept them. Dr. Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) has returned home to her small town to take over her father’s practice. A secret about her past still lingers among the tight knit community. Jean meets Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), a curious young boy who is fascinated by the bee hives Jean keeps on her estate. Back at home, Charlie’s mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) is going through a rough patch. Charlie’s father Robert (Emun Elliott) has abandoned the family, her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) is suspicious of Lydia’s every move and Lydia isn’t making enough money at the local mill and is facing eviction. When Charlie comes home with a bee-keeping journal and a novel Jean has gifted him, Lydia confronts Jean to discover the doctor is a kind woman and not a meddling man. The two quickly bond and when Lydia and Charlie are eventually evicted, Jean hires Lydia as her housekeeper. Behind the closed doors of the estate, Jean’s attraction for Lydia grows stronger and her desire to pull back weakens. As the two become intimate, whispers and rumors begin to circulate in the village. In an era where their relationship is not only frowned upon but illegal, can Lydia and Jean stay together? And what will happen to Charlie if they do?

“This town is too small for secrets.”

Based on the novel by Fiona Shaw, Tell It to the Bees was adapted to the screen by sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth. In an interview with director Annabel Jankel, she remarked that she was drawn by “the power of generosity to fulfill another person’s potential.” Lydia and Jean are two female characters who are lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down. Resiliency and compassion is what drives Jean to pursue medicine in a town that won’t have her. Lydia’s the extrovert to Jean’s introvert and she shows Jean how to be free with her emotions. And for what it’s worth I appreciated that the Lydia and Jean were working women and not bored housewives.

The general theme of secrets and lies runs strong in this story. It’s the main conflict for the story’s narrator Charlie who is grappling with major changes and doesn’t know how to process the actions of the adults around him. It’s refreshing to see a child character who is curious and receptive and an integral part of the main story and not just a sideliner.

A secondary story follows Lydia’s sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle) who is in an interracial relationship with a young man. When she becomes pregnant, her disapproving brother Robert and sister Pam try to “fix” the situation. It’s a reminder that while that era had many beautiful aesthetics the cultural mores could be quite ugly.

The bees are another character in the story and add an almost fantastical element. The close up shots of the bees are stunning. They pulsate with energy and you can feel that coming off the screen. In the film they react to the goings on in the human world around them and at one point even intervene on behalf of some of the characters. About the bees director Jankel says, “I felt an added kinship with the supernatural cinematic quality that the extraordinary world of the bees could provide, for an audience, both visually, and sonically.”

Tell It to the Bees is a sweet indie film with a tender heart. Paquin and Grainger deliver beautiful performances as their polar opposite characters. My only small criticism of what is otherwise a beautiful film is that I felt there was a lack of sexual chemistry between the two leads. However, I appreciated the fact that their sexual relationship wasn’t the focus of the story. And thanks to the women writers and the woman director we don’t see a lesbian love story as a male fantasy. Rather it’s a deep and meaningful relationship that transforms the characters and allows them to grow as persons. If you get a chance to watch Tell It to the Bees, take it! I hope this film finds its audience.

I attended a press and industry screening of Tell It to the Bees at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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