Tell It to the Bees (2018), directed by Annabel Jankel [BFI Flare Festival]

Watched at BFI’s Flare Festival 2019.

Tell It to the Bees is the first film I see at the BFI’s 2019 Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Is it good or bad to start off with a poor film? Pros and cons to both I suppose. Tell It to the Bees’ main flaw is in the script, filled with words sat so flat I hear them as if they are still on the paper – being read but not spoken – words that are so clearly scripted. Tied up in a cliched rendition of emotion, the actors cannot seem to make them weightless in their feelings so they may spill out of their mouths with ease. Even moments that attempt poetic inflection strain to make themselves transcend the page, the intentionality so blunt that I rolled my eyes (literally) throughout. Were the script better, perhaps the film would’ve been fine – its palette soft and muted, mise-en-scene efficient for the non-gritty filtered look at post-war (early 50s) British life, but all in all extremely average.

Anna Paquin playing Dr Jean Markham and Kate Dickie playing Pam Kranmer serve to remind us that acting can so often be released or restrained by direction – a lesson in the former made easily evident by P. T. Anderson’s ability to bring out something wonderful in Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love (2002). In Tell it to the Bees Paquin and Dickie, like all involved, are reduced to expressions of obvious worry, seduction, nervousness, upset – emotions enacted as words in large font, not the airs of affects that may sweep over a face, etching the oval palettes in subtle brimming.

The eponymous bees, so ripe for more refined allegorical employment, become another unrefined instrument. They begin as a soundboard for the young Charlie’s (Gregor Selkirk) secrets as to make sure his feelings are expressed to us verbally lest we cannot detect them via the nuance of action. Main character and mother to Charlie, Lydia (Holliday Grainger), is consistently dressed in floral print garments as to communicate both her “wildness” that is her inability to conform, as well as perhaps her need to be “pollinated” – that is, activated – by the seductive sting of Jean. Jean, in her role as a doctor, also serves as a remedy to Lydia’s life, not just sexually but also financially and in terms of domestic security. However, the class distinction between the two central women is never unpacked or explored beyond an idea of Jean’s kind and giving nature. Nowhere is it articulated in camera and instead only told to us through props, setting and dialogue. The brutality of Rob, husband to Lydia and father to Charlie, is similarly unnuanced and as an audience we are given little indication to the charm he surely once possessed.

By the end the bees become all but a parody, swarming around like a CGI screensaver whilst mother and son prance along them un-stung and relieved following Charlie’s unleash of the tiny, winged creatures onto the cruel father. The bees are a tool for the narrative but not a lot else. The film is not latticed like honey-comb, there is not a co-operative networking of women (whom are pitted against each on numerous occasions) and the aesthetics are not the golden, sticky or sweet. The inter-racial couple whom form the secondary narrative strain are similarly inserted without much unpacking of the intricacies such a relationship in the 1950s poverty stricken town might have produced.

By describing an “intolerant” time of the past, the film serves to indicate that we have come a long way, that the “then” and the “now” are distinct, placing our present in the progressive and that somehow fantasies like love will cure our ills.

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