There’s a squishy wistfulness that hangs over “Tell It to the Bees,” a same sex romance set in small town Scotland in the 1950s. Flashes of magical realism gently but gratingly clash with drab melodrama. Winning performances by leads Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger can’t banish it.
But the handsomely-mounted period production has its rewards and the finale manages a nice messiness that undoes some of what’s trite and far-fetched that’s come before it.
Jean Markham (the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning Paquin) has returned to the town she left decades before, taking over her late father’s medical practice. It’s 1952, and whatever she left town for — and we can guess that — she felt the pull of purpose drawing her back.
“These women, they work, keep quiet and they don’t complain,” she tells a friend. “think I could make a difference.”
Lydia (Grainger, of “The Finest Hours,” “Tulip Fever” and TV’s “Bonnie & Clyde”) is one of those women, an outsider who moved here, putting in a full day on the looms at the textile mill, indulging her curious son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), weeping when she thinks he’s not looking.
She’s married a lout (Emun Elliott) who refers to their child as “YOUR son” as he walks out on them. How will she pay the rent?
Charlie is how Jean and Lydia meet. His hobbies are Sherlock Holmes novels and getting into brawls with boys who disparage his Mum. One of those fights puts him in the doctor’s care.
And he and the doctor connect over a shared fascination with bees.
“My father used to say, ‘You tell the bees your secrets and they’ll never go away,'” Jean tells him. So Charlie takes to telling the bees his secrets.
But his mother and Jean are conjuring up secrets all their own. The whispering about both only grows as the homeless Lydia and Charlie move in with kind-hearted and well-off Jean.
The whispering, before and after, is about pretty much what you expect, thanks to the predictable arc of Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth’s screenplay.
So are the obstacles to their “forbidden love” in an era when homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain and small towns were the last place you wanted to test that.
“Those sort of people don’t change their minds,” Jean’s solicitor-friend (Steven Robertson) counsels.
It’s a romance of tasteful love scenes and brittle bigotry, with jarring transitions and a messy climax and that messier finale I mentioned earlier. Lydia’s a bit of a party girl, and seems more instantly-attracted to Jean than such stories traditionally play out. Her brutish soon-to-be-ex is a caricature of villainy, checked-out and moved-on, but still wanting control of this woman and son he refuses to support.
Some of that can be attributed to what might be our unreliable narrator (the adult Charlie). He’s pulling this all together from memory, and “The line between what I saw and what I thought I saw is blurred.”
Director Annabel Jankel broke through in films with the Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan remake of “D.O.A.” in the 1980s, and whatever she can’t finesse in the script she compensates for in tone. This is a verdant, conservative place more comfortable with whispers and hissed insults than confrontation.
But even Jankel can’t smooth over the eye-rolling moments in the film’s climax. That doesn’t kill “Tell It to the Bees,” which passes otherwise without objection. But it does tend to rob one of much enthusiasm in endorsing it.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, adult subject matter
Cast: Anna Paquin, Holliday Grainger, Gregor Selkirk, Emun Elliott
Credits:Directed by Annabel Jankel, script by Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth. A Good Deed Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:46