The Movie Waffler Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - TELL IT TO THE BEES | The Movie Waffler

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Dublin International Film Festival 2019 Review - TELL IT TO THE BEES

tell it to the bees review
In 1950s rural Scotland, a single mother falls for the doctor who takes her in as her housekeeper.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Annabel Jankel

Starring: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Gregor Selkirk, Kate Dickie, Emun Elliott

tell it to the bees poster


Queer cinema has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Aside from Moonlight scooping a Best Picture Oscar, we've seen Hollywood deliver a mainstream teen comedy in Love, Simon, while the indie and foreign language sphere has given us LGBT movies as diverse as sun soaked summer romance Call Me by Your Name, giallo homage Knife + Heart, dark domestic drama Tomcat and the sex work positive Sauvage, just to name a few. Yet we still get movies like Tell It to the Bees, movies more interested in superficially critiquing homophobia than in celebrating sexual freedom.


tell it to the bees review

Adapted from author Fiona Shaw's 2009 novel, director Annabel Jankel's first feature since 1993's much derided Super Mario Bros. takes us back to rural Scotland in the 1950s, where relocated Mancunian mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) finds herself struggling to earn a living at a local cotton mill while raising her young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk). The boy's father, Robert (Emun Elliott) has deserted his paternal responsibilities, but not the local village, and his aggressive, sozzled presence haunts Lydia and Charlie.

Returning to the village is Jean (Anna Paquin), a GP who left several years ago amid a flurry of gossip pertaining to her sexual preferences. Taking over her late father's practice and his sizeable home, Jean comes into contact with Lydia when she loans a book to young Charlie after treating a scratch on his knee, the result of standing up to a school bully. When Lydia is fired from the mill by her boss, Pam (Kate Dickie), who also happens to be her husband's sister, Jean employs her as her live-in housekeeper, and it's not long before the two women are making googly eyes at one another while attempting to keep their romance a secret from the small-minded villagers.


tell it to the bees review

Jankel is quite a fascinating figure. A sister of punk-disco icon Chaz Jankel, she directed some of the most innovative music videos and commercials of the '80s, and along with Rocky Morton she formed a creative partnership that saw the pair create the iconic TV show Max Headroom and deliver a well-received remake of the classic film noir D.O.A. before Super Mario Bros. saw her sent to director jail. On the evidence of the first half at least of Tell It to the Bees, her imprisonment has been cinema's loss. It's a visually splendid movie, at times evocative of Malick in its incorporation of nature and the environment the story plays out in, with stunning macro photography taking us inside beehives to remind us that while we engage in petty human squabbles, the natural world is busy keeping the planet ticking over.

Grainger and Paquin shine in their central roles, and we really warm to their relationship. To a point, the film is as romantic a depiction of same-sex love as any we've seen recently, and simply hanging out with these two women is a pleasure in itself.

But then the plot kicks in and things go rapidly downhill. Young Charlie walks in on his mother and her lover mid-coitus and runs off to his father, who, along with his sister turns into a mustache twirling villain. Dickie's Pam is an almost parodic representation of stern Presbyterian spinsterhood, and she commits a horrific act that would be more at home in one of those '70s grindhouse movies set in Nazi death camps than in a gay romance; an act that seems to contradict the religious beliefs you assume a woman in '50s rural Scotland might hold. The message, and Jankel's direction simultaneously become heavy-handed, and there's something classist about how the ignorant and violent working class Robert and Pam are placed in opposition to the sensitive, worldly middle class Jean, a sort of saviour figure to the equally underclass Lydia. Worse is how it ignorantly uses a token black character (Leo Hoyte-Egan), a young West Indian immigrant who gets Robert's sister pregnant. He isn't given any audible dialogue and not so much as a close-up; rather he is defined solely by his skin colour, a cheap prop in a subplot designed to make a white protagonist seem more heroic.


tell it to the bees review

In the movie's laughably bad climax, things just get plain silly, as Charlie summons the bees from the hives kept in Jean's garden to protect himself, his mother and Jean from the awful yokels about to march on the mansion with pitchforks and burning torches. It's a moment of magic realism that wouldn't be out of place in a Guillermo del Toro movie, but it has no place in a film that has played its drama so, err...straight. It should also be noted that the story is narrated by a grown up Charlie, which makes you wonder why it features explicit sex scenes involving his mother. Actually, maybe it's best not to think about that.

Tell It to the Bees is in UK cinemas July 19th.


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