In a small town in 1950s Scotland, two women fall for each other. The hum of gossip that follows drowns out the buzzing from the hives they both tend. Directed by Annabel Jankel, ‘Tell It to the Bees’ is a poignant story of a romance that’s crushed before it can take wing, even if it lacks the messiness of Fiona Shaw’s source novel.
As in ‘Atonement’, its lovers are seen through the eyes of the child who accidentally ruins everything. Charlie lives with his vivacious but depressed mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger), who’s scraping a living in a lace-making factory. He’s bullied, so local doctor Jean offers him consolation: whispering secrets to her beehive.
Anna Paquin turns in a wry, winning performance as Jean. She’s worn down by patients who think women should wield rolling pins, not stethoscopes. And she’s been outed before, so it takes her a while to express her love for Grainger’s lonely, jazz-dancing Lydia. Their romance simmers convincingly. Then it boils over in a mess of gossip, kidnapping, botched abortion and heavy-handed bee symbolism. Yes, the ’50s were grim for women, but this pair get stamped on implausibly thoroughly.
Still, ‘Tell It to the Bees’ offers other rewards. The setting feels distinctive, and its leads glow in bright period frocks, scandalising the dour town’s inhabitants with illicit colours as well as kisses. Their chemistry brings welcome sweetness to a story that refuses to sugar-coat the realities of gay life in a reactionary time.