The most surprising thing about “Tell It to the Bees” doesn’t even happen on camera. Instead it’s the simple fact that this tasteful-to-a-fault literary adaptation about the forbidden love between two women in 1950s Scotland comes from the co-director of … “Super Mario Bros”?
Annabel Jankel, a prolific music video and commercial helmer, hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since that 1993 debacle. And while it’s not immediately clear what drew her to “Bees,” she couldn’t have picked a more radically different 26-years-later follow-up.
Based on a 2009 novel of the same name by writer Fiona Shaw, “Bees” charts the attraction between a struggling mother, Lydia (Holliday Grainger) — whose feckless war-veteran husband (Emun Elliott) suddenly abandons her and their young son, Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) — and the rural town’s new doctor, Jean (Anna Paquin), a whispered-about local who returns after years away. Charlie’s interest in Jean’s bee colonies provides the title, a reference to the belief there’s some spiritual value in sharing your personal secrets with the flying insects.
But nothing stays secret for long in a movie that packs in so many serious issues — from abortion to domestic violence, sexual assault to prejudice and homophobia — it can’t quite do justice to any of them.
Paquin, in one of her strongest performances since “The Piano,” and especially Grainger (best known for a substantial résumé of British television) shoulder the film’s dramatic burdens with grace and ease. They’re a pleasure to watch. But the unassumingly square and overly familiar film simply isn’t the buzzworthy vehicle their work deserves.
‘Tell It to the Bees’
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Vintage Los Feliz 3; also on VOD