TELL IT TO THE BEES
review by alison traynor
Annabel Jankel’s Tell It to the Bees narrates the story of Lydia (Holliday Grainger), a struggling single mother who lives with her young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) in a close-knit Scottish community in the 1950s. Ostracized by her peers for conceiving Charlie out of wedloc, and abandoned by her virulent husband, Lydia, in search of comfort and companionship, strikes up a friendship with the local doctor, Jean (Anna Paquin), who has just returned to the town after many years to run her deceased father’s medical practice. Over time, Lydia and Jean’s friendship blossoms into an intense romance, much to the horror of the homophobic local townspeople. In order to maintain their relationship, the two women are forced to overcome a multitude of problems within the hostile, conservative environment in which they live.
One of the major flaws of Tell It to the Bees is its complete lack of originality. While it is great to see more gay characters being portrayed on our cinema screens than ever before, it is unfortunate that such a large number of these films function as a masturbatory display of self-congratulatory directorial back slapping. Much too frequently, directors endeavor to create works which exist solely to prove to the world how liberal or inclusive they are. Works of this kind often include a gay protagonist, whose only purpose within the context of the film is to be homosexual, while all of their other characteristics are considered to be secondary in the eyes of the director. Unfortunately, Tell It to the Bees falls into this trap. While it seems that Jankel’s heart is in the right place, the characters of Lydia and the poorly-acted Jean are utilised almost solely as a tool for her moralistic aims, yet they never manage to reveal anything more profound than the fact that homophobia is not actually a good thing.
Most genuine film fans will react to this cinematic car crash with revulsion. However, budding apiologists will almost certainly adore it. The title of Tell It to the Bees is not actually a lofty metaphor, but a very literal reference to the plotline, which contains a laughable amount of references to bees. Jean is a beekeeper, and Charlie enjoys watching her at work and spends much of his time studying the insects. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but the film rapidly descends into unwittingly comical territory when it is revealed that the movements of the bees are used to reflect what is going on in the rest of the film. For example, Charlie’s father Robert (Emun Elliott) is portrayed as a caricature of cruelty. He is unfaithful to Lydia, abandons his family, and stops paying their rent, eventually resulting in the mother and son being made homeless. In case the audience was oblivious to this concept, in order to demonstrate that he is in fact an unpleasant character, he violently punches a bee hive in a fit of rage. Likewise, when the furious Charlie discovers the truth about his mother’s lesbian relationship and flees their home through the garden, his anthrapod companions are nowhere to be found, reflecting his pain and loneliness.
As if all of this was not ridiculous enough, the film has a gloriously silly Deus Ex Machina ending that is both baffling and hilarious. Who or what is this mysterious, closure-bringing God from the machine, you might ask? Well, it may be surprising to hear, but it is actually a swarm of bees. At this point, you may begin to feel genuine concern for Jankel. Of course, bees are great and everything, but this woman has bees on the brain. Could there be some Freudian explanation to this? Perhaps as a child she always dreamed of becoming a beekeeper when she grew up, but was instead pushed into filmmaking by her autocratic parents? Either way, I hope that she manages to overcome her monomania and perhaps in the future she can make a film that is not tainted by this bizarre idée fixe.
Tell It To The Bees opens in Irish cinemas on July 19th.