I want to give you plenty of warning – this post will contain spoilers about the film adaptation of Fiona Shaw‘s novel, Tell it to the Bees, in particular, the ending. So, if you don’t want to know, please head on back to the main page and enjoy posts about Imagine Me and You, Abby’s, new releases and more.
Ok, so. Color me baffled. I’ve been well aware of the buzz about Tell it to the Bees for quite some time (since it first appeared on the festival circuit) and what most critics say rings true for me as well. The ending derails the film. In the book, which the film is based on, the two lead characters, Dr. Jean and Lydia, leave their insular Scottish town and start a life together abroad with Lydia’s son, Charlie. Certainly this wasn’t an easy decision to make in the early 1950s, but it is that decision that gives the book such wondrous hope. The film, directed by Annabel Jankel, and with a screenplay by Jessica and Henrietta Ashworth, chooses to go a different direction, which follows so many of the same old depressing tropes about LGBTQ persons. Yes, the world wasn’t exactly ready to embrace queer couples in the 1950s (hell, we’re still working in that) but people did find love and happiness together, even then. Just ask Thelma and Edie. Gertrude and Alice. Tennessee and Frank. I recently spent time with some older couples who had been together for decades, even half a century. The same thing rings true – it was love that brought them together and love that kept them there. In Tell it to the Bees, no one dies, but a part of the beauty of that brave and wondrous story does.
What makes this all the more frustrating to me as a critic and a viewer, is that the performances are absolutely terrific. Out actress Anna Paquin puts in one of her best performances to date as Dr. Jean Markham, a woman who has returned to the small town that rejected her as a young woman, to step into her father’s shoes as the sole doctor. Paquin brings a shy sweetness to the character, whose soft butchness shines through her interactions and movements. She may have had to wear shirts and heels at work, but she’s most at home in her beekeeping gear and a smart pair of slacks. When young Charlie (wonderful newcomer Gregor Selkirk) is taken to Dr. Jean by his aunt after a scuffle with some classmates, he becomes enchanted by the bee hives that Dr. Jean and her late father have kept since she was a child. Soon his single mother Lydia (a remarkable Holliday Granger) becomes enchanted too, but by Jean’s kind heart and the easy chemistry that develops between them. It’s a slow burn, that is terrifically satisfying, especially since its Lydia that makes the first moves and pledges to stay by Jean’s side even as the going gets tough.
However, there’s much more to the story than two women who find love in a hopeless place. There’s a lot of bleakness to counteract the joy, and it pulls at you. This is why changing the ending is all the more maddening. While it sets up the viewer to think that it’s a brave decision on Jean’s part, it actually feels quite the opposite. Bravery is choosing love. It always has been, and it still is now.
Tell it to the Bees is available now on VOD.