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.
At the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) I attended a special screening of Maurice (1987). Before the film, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz sat down with the film’s director James Ivory to discuss the movie and his career.
To period film enthusiasts like myself James Ivory is a well-known name. He was part of the Merchant-Ivory productions trio that included his late partner producer Ismail Merchant, the late screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and himself as director. This partnership gave birth to many wonderful films including A Room With a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993) and many others. These films set the standard because of their excellence in story telling and the meticulous attention to detail given to virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process. The last collaboration with all Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala was Le Divorce (2003). Merchant passed away shortly after the premiere of The White Countess (2005) and Jhabvala passed away in 2013.
As the surviving member of this trio, Ivory has recently found a new career as a screenwriter. He had contributed to screenplays on previous projects but Call Me By Your Name (2017), based on Andre Aciman’s acclaimed novel, was the first time he had ever written a script all on his own. At the age of 89, Ivory became the oldest nominee to win an Oscar which he did for best adapted screenplay. I read Ivory’s screenplay for CMBYN before attending TCMFF (you can read it for free online). It’s one of the best I’ve ever read and while Luca Guadagnino’s film for the most part stayed faithful to the script, some of the intimate moments in Ivory’s adaptation were altered for various reasons concerning the director and the film’s stars Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet. In discussion with Ben Mankiewicz, Ivory touched upon his disappointment that CMBYN did not contain nudity even though the script called for it. He said,
“I hate talking about the subject and at one point I was told not to by Sony Pictures because it would make people not go see the movie… There’s always been a lot of nudity in our [Merchant-Ivory] movies, male, female. We’ve never worried about that very much. I’ve always felt that in love scenes, when showing people in love or when they just made love or whn they’re about to make love to put sheets around them. I always thought [to include it] … I was told that would happen in this film. However the two guys [Hammer and Chalamet] had it in their contracts [not to]. Let me just say this English actors don’t care about that at all. Or French actors. They walk around naked all the time. It’s not true of American actors. There’s a kind of modesty.”
It’s hard not to compare CMBYN with Maurice. Both are romantic period pieces, one set in 1980s Italy and the other early 20th century England, that focus on gay characters. The outcomes for the two sets of couples are very different but many of the story elements are the same and both include references to ancient Greek and Roman literature and art. When Mankiewicz brought this up, Ivory disagreed. He thinks they are quite different except that they are both “unashamed presentations of gay love.”
The story of Maurice was ground breaking in that it was unashamed in its presentation of romances between men. Renowned author E.M. Forster wrote the novel in 1913 and 1914 and revisited it a few times over the decades. When he passed away in 1970, he left the manuscript behind with a note that read “publishable, but worth it?” It was indeed published the following year but considered a minor entry into his ouevre. In conversation, Ivory pointed out that Forster couldn’t have published it in his lifetime. He went on to say, “it would have been considered obscene. It was a story with what was considered criminal acts in England. Then laws in England were changed in the early ’60s. So it could be published. But by that time he was pretty old and he wasn’t thinking about it a lot. Various friends of his who had read it over the years told him not to [even though] they liked it.”
Upon the success of the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of Forster’s A Room With a View, Ivory and his team received offers from studios for all sorts of projects. One of them was a treasure hunting adventure film set in the Caribbean and starring Tom Cruise. When that project fell through, Ivory revisited Forster’s work, reading and re-reading his various novels and stories. Ivory had read Maurice when it first came out but hadn’t thought of adapting it to film until he read it again a decade later. In the interview he said:
“I thought that Maurice was sort of the other side of the coin of A Room With a View. It was really the same kind of story. The same kind of people. Privileged, upper-middle class, educated, English people who were going to live a lie rather than really seek personal happiness, romantic happiness. They were prepared in A Room With a View and in Maurice to live some lie and pretend that they didn’t loved the person they really loved. I thought that was very relevant to today. A lot has changed since 1910 but people’s attitudes about living a lie had not always changed.”
Forsters executors at King’s College were hesitant that a film adaptation of Maurice wouldn’t pan out. ccording to Ivory, they were mostly concerned that the novel didn’t have the prestige of Forster’s other work and that a movie might drag down his literary reputation. Eventually they relented. Screenwriter Jhabvala was otherwise occupied writing her novel Three Continents and also fairly uninterested in Maurice as a project. However she did contribute what Ivory calls “very good and highly useful dramatic suggestions” to the script Ivory worked on with Kit Hesketh-Harvey.
The film starred relative newcomers James Wilby as Maurice, Hugh Grant as Clive and Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder. Because it was difficult to get all the cast members at the same place at the same time there was little-to-no-time for rehearsals and script read throughs and barely enough time for the actors to get to know each other before shooting very intimate scenes. Mankiewicz asked Ivory what it was like to direct a love scene with two actors who had yet to develop chemistry with each other. Ivory’s response:
“It’s a bit like throwing a dog and a cat in a box together. You just have to see what’s going to happen. “
Maurice was well-received at the Venice Film Festival, where it received several prizes, played for several months at The Paris Theater in New York and was praised by critics. Maurice was ahead of its time in many respects but also came at the perfect time. Ivory pointed out that
“It came out at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was at its worst point. If you think that maybe because of that people would have backed off from it. But I think people didn’t dare to criticize it because of that very fact. This huge tragedy was going on. People who might have attacked it said it was not the time. Especially a film with a happy ending.”
Fast forward thirty years later and Ivory’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) garners critical praise and a cult following. And that Academy Award for best adapted screenplay didn’t hurt either. About CMBYN’s appeal, Ivory shared,
“I’m stopped on the street all the time in New York. People recognize me. Maybe it’s my cane or something. They come up to me. Sometimes it will be much older couple, man and wife, and they go on and on about how they love the film. I’ve also noticed that with teenage girls who are just crazy about it, of course that’s Timothee Chalamet I know. They see it again and again and again. It’s just playing everywhere. It’s a love story between some attractive young people in the most beautiful place in the summer. Apart from it’s general tone as a film it’s just something that appeals to people. The same thing can be said A Room With a View. It’s the same kind of feel. A Room With a View had that same kind of audience reaction everywhere in the world.”
What’s next for James Ivory? For years he’s been trying to get funding for an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II without much success. Currently he’s working on a screenplay for Alexander Payne based on a story Ruth Jhabvala wrote for The New Yorker shortly before she died. It was optioned years ago by Payne and Fox Searchlight but only recently has it been revisited.
Read more of my TCMFF coverage over on my classic film blog Out of the Past.