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A wee bit on the mushy side, which could actually be an asset commercially, Tell It to the Bees casts Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger as secret lovers in a small Scottish town not long after World War II. Adapted from Fiona Shaw’s book of the same name by sister screenwriters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, this British production comes directed by Annabel Jankel, whose résumé includes co-creating TV character Max Headroom as well as directing the Meg Ryan-Dennis Quaid remake of noir classic D.O.A. and computer game-to-film adaptation Super Mario Bros. and lots of music-related filmmaking.
Given that eclectic background, Jankel seems a slightly odd fit for this period-set romantic drama, although her visual effects skills must have been helpful for supervising the creation of a swarm of digital bees. The result should appeal to audiences with a soft spot for stories about plucky, convention-defying women falling in love while wearing floaty, vintage tea dresses — and keeping bees. Some might mutter about the industry’s preference for lesbian-themed movies in which the leads just so happen to be thin, femme and pretty, but it’s hard to dislike this pleasant, earnest work.
In a Scottish town big enough to support a fabric mill but small enough that gossip spreads fast, pretty Englishwoman Lydia Weekes (Grainger) has found a precarious place for herself after marrying into the community and bearing a son, Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), now about 11 or 12. Unfortunately, Lydia’s husband Robert, a war veteran, has gone astray and now has a fancy woman he’s decided to move in with, leaving Lydia to cope largely on her own, albeit with some grudging childcare help from Robert’s widowed sister Pam (the protean Kate Dickie). Pam’s own daughter Annie (Lauren Lyle), nearly out of her teens and with a bit of a wild streak, has been stepping out with George (Leo Hoyte-Egan), a nice but barely developed character who happens to be of color. Oddly and rather ahistorically, George’s ethnicity is never remarked upon by anyone, which inadvertently flatters the townspeople by positing they’re capable of one kind of tolerance but not another, as the plot soon proves.
For it transpires that Dr. Jean Markham (Paquin, assaying a Scottish accent near perfectly for the perhaps the first time since she won a best supporting actress Oscar for The Piano as a child), the new general practitioner in town, once caused a bit of a scandal as a teen herself when she was caught kissing another girl. Now back home in the wake of her father’s demise after years away at university and elsewhere, she keeps a low profile, living in her father’s large house and tending to the swarm of bees that comes with the place. An old friend, wealthy toff bachelor Jim (Steven Robertson), offers to marry her but, knowing it would never work, she declines. However, when a minor injury of Charlie’s introduces her to Lydia, the attraction is palpable. Moreover, Charlie is entranced by the bee swarm, and at Jean’s suggestion, in accordance with local folk wisdom, he starts telling his secrets to the bees regularly, hence the title.
The time the young screenwriters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth have spent so far working in television (including the upcoming second season of Killing Eve) is palpable in the tidy storytelling here, which braids all the strands in neatly, leading up to a finale where Jean must help out Annie with her medical skills after a botched forced abortion (a timely subject) while Lydia, now lovers with Jean, is confronted by her unpleasant, homophobic ex-husband. Even the bees get involved in the ensuing ruck, resulting in a lot of cross-cut drama as everything, somewhat improbably, all kicks off at once.
Nevertheless, despite such melodramatic touches, the film demonstrates a good ear for period dialogue and, to an extent, period attitudes with a conclusion that suits the challenges of the times. There’s also a sensitivity to the nuances of class difference in the era, expressed subtly through Andy Harris’ production design and Ali Mitchell’s costumes, offering a lovely mood board study in warm ochres, heathery pinks and misty grays.
In terms of performance, Grainger’s natural effervescence blends well with Paquin’s nervier persona, and they come across as a plausible, if somewhat idealized couple. The love scenes are genuinely sexy, just explicit enough to be credible without showing too much skin, thus risking a higher rating. This is no Mustard Yellow Is the Warmest Color — which, again, will probably make this more marketable, especially for nostalgic, open-minded older viewers.
Production companies: Reliance Entertainment Productions 8, Archface Films, Taking A Line For A Walk, Riverstone Pictures, Cayenne Film Company, Motion Picture Capital, BFI, Creative Scotland, Filmgate Films, Twickenham Studios, Film i Vast
Cast: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Emun Elliott, Steven Robertson, Lauren Lyle, Gregor Selkirk, Kate Dickie
Director: Annabel Jankel
Screenwriters: Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth, based on the novel Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw
Producers: Daisy Allsop, Nick Hill, Annabel Jankel, Nik Bower, Laure Vaysse
Co-producers: Sean Wheelan, Tomas Eskilsson, Hannah Leader
Executive producers: Deepak Nayar, Alison Owen, Lizzie Francke, Sunny Vohra, Ross McKenzie
Director of photography: Bartosz Nalazek
Production designer: Andy Harris
Costume designer: Ali Mitchell
Editor: Jon Harris, Maya Maffioli
Music: Claire Singer
Casting: Dan Hubbard
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Film Constellation
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