This historical romance’s most striking, well-rounded quality is its immediate sense of place. While the setting was moved from Yorkshire to southern Scotland in the adaptation process, the small-town streets and buildings form a recognisable, coherent, navigable world, adding an extra layer of vividness and authenticity to the lives and loves studied. Special mention must go to the meticulous costume design, which superbly captures the era and marks class structures.
While many supporting characters fit two-dimensional moulds, weakening some interactions, the two central performances shine. As closely-guarded doctor Jean Markham, Anna Paquin conveys both her unwavering commitment to her career despite community disapproval as well as her shrewd conformity built for survival. Holliday Grainger captures the many faces Lydia Weekes’ puts on for those in her life – mother, (ex)wife, worker, and lover – while never losing sight of Lydia’s own personhood. The voiceover from Lydia’s son’s (Gregor Selkirk) point of view occasionally distracts, and one wishes that the women – especially Jean – had more agency in telling this story considering the fierce opposition they face. However, Selkirk is a compelling, naturalistic child actor and carries a subtle coming-of-age arc.
The film does not shy away from the violence against women and their physical and emotional autonomy; the discomfort sometimes errs on the gratuitous side, especially considering the unsatisfactorily neat ways both the main plot and a key subplot are resolved. The framing of these events weakens the impact of the domestic drama and small-scale tragedy, creating a distance where it should invite intimacy.
Tell It to the Bees may serve its characters unearned exploitation, but its multi-layered central performances and fastidious sense of time and place allow moments of truth to shine. Ultimately, its heart is let down by a tone that veers between a gritty verisimo and an almost magical realism.
CAST: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Kate Dickie, Gregor Selkirk
DIRECTOR: Annabel Jankel (as AJ Jankel)
WRITERS: Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth
SYNOPSIS: A woman abandoned by her husband strikes up a relationship with the local doctor, who recently returned to her small Scottish hometown following a scandal in her youth.