Its principal themes and metaphors repetitively highlighted as if for a freshman lit course, “Tell It to the Bees” really, really wants you to know it’s based on a novel. One that presumably worked better than this hamfisted adaptation, the kind of movie that paints the past in simplistic terms to better affirm the wisdom of our evolved values today. Combining heavy-breathing (but not particularly convincing) lesbian romance with a rote bewildered-child’s POV, plus lots of bees — metaphorical significance alert!! — Annabel Jankel’s Scottish period drama is a BBC-style tea cosy potboiler that will be best suited to appropriate small-screen outlets.
In a Scottish village in 1952, Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) barely ekes out an existence for herself and young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) by working at the local mill. Her husband, Robert (Emun Elliott), hasn’t been “right” since he got back from the war. He’s now basically abandoned his young family, refusing even to help pay the rent. Somehow this all gets blamed on Lydia by the stuffy burg’s busy gossips; she’s been branded a slut ever since pregnancy preceded her marriage.
Eviction and job loss send mother and child to the only door still open to them, that of new friend Dr. Jean Markham (Anna Paquin). The latter is also new to the village in a sense — she’s returned to her father’s sizable home to take over his medical practice after many years’ absence. We eventually learn he’d sent her away after traumatic youthful circumstances that still get her whispered about as a “dirty dyke.” But she’s willing to take the needy duo in, further providing Lydia with employment as housekeeper. Charlie is very taken with the beehives Jean’s recently deceased father left behind in the yard, helping the doctor maintain them.
Dissolute Robert suddenly takes a possessive interest in his hitherto neglected wife and son now that they’re finally doing well without him. He grows more threatening as the two women become more intimate and give way to forbidden desires, risking being shunned by the local populace. These conflicts work to a predictable froth, the omnipresent bees providing a sort of magical-realist intervention climax.
Jankel, co-creator of “Max Headroom” and a prolific music-video director whose last theatrical feature was the disastrous video-game adaptation “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993, approaches this rather simply plotted costume piece as if every element must be writ large lest audiences miss the point. This results in a movie whose points are made in a way that might give viewers a concussion. Wee Charlie is told that people “tell their secrets to the bees,” and as he tries to puzzle out the secretive adult behavior around him, Jankel emphasizes that lyrical connection between “secrets” and “bees” with such pseudo-lyrical editorial obviousness it almost becomes a kind of parody of arthouse pretensions.
There’s nary a risky private moment that Charlie or some vicious gossip doesn’t happen to overhear, while a subplot involving an interracial romance and illegal abortion reduces those issues to the same shrill melodrama as the lesbian relationship. Characters and situations certainly needn’t be drawn in such blunt terms for us to “get” that early ’50s provincial Scotland was socially conservative. A subtler hand might have achieved more impact with less strain from siblings Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth’s adaptation of Fiona Shaw’s well-regarded novel.
The effect is as artificially intense as it is banal, with capable performers pushed to overdo the furtive glances, trembling lips, scowling intolerance and villainous scoundrelry. Within the film’s modest scale, the period trappings feel apt, and its aesthetic packaging is attractive enough. But particularly for a movie largely about repression, “Bees” is so full of forced emotions that it teeters on the brink of cliche-riddled camp.