Content Warnings: Child loss/(forced) (botched) abortion; blood; homophobia; graphic sexual assault/domestic violence/attempted rape
Genre: Sapphic Drama/Historical Romance
Directed by Annabel Jankel
Screenplay by Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth, based on the novel by Fiona Shaw
RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain
10/10 excruciating violets. JFC.
This review contains spoilers.
I adored this movie’s portrayal of Sapphic love between Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) and Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger). I loved how innocent and easy this relationship was from the start, especially how Lydia had absolutely no qualms about her new feelings toward a woman despite the prejudice against homosexuality in post-World War II Scotland. It’s gorgeous depictions of romantic and sexual tension between the women through their physical proximity and the close attention to the sound of their breath makes for an overall softness that Sapphic romance is known for. (The scene where Lydia hosts two bees on her neck is my favorite.)
Tell It to the Bees was well on its way to being one of my favorite Sapphic films until it took a very sharp and violent turn with a botched abortion that allows Dr. Markham her time to shine as a “lady doctor.”
As soon as the forced abortion commences, so does the plot elements driven by every other content warning listed above. When Lydia’s son walks into the room he’s forbidden to enter and discovers the young woman bleeding to death, he runs back to Dr. Markham’s house for help, and thus back into his mother’s arms. This sends his angry, abusive father chasing after him to tear him away from his wife, who he knows is shacking up with Dr. Markham. But when Lydia locks Charlie out of the room to prevent him from harm, her husband throws her down and attempts “corrective” rape, which would’ve been horrific even if their son wasn’t on the other side of the door screaming bloody murder. But somehow Dr. Markham’s bees free themselves from their hives and attack Lydia’s husband, and this allows them all to run out into the backyard and “have a moment” with the bees and nature and whatever. Yuck.
It’s been more than five hours since I watched this film, and I’m still physically ill.
This film foregrounds women’s excruciating pain in a way that distracts from what should’ve been a beautiful and poignant story about love and prejudice in the post-war period.
And Lydia and Jean don’t end up together. That’s a huge source of pain. While historically accurate, the fact that the most homophobic of the townspeople is able to accept Dr. Markham for who she is (albeit after she saves her daughter’s life) suggests that they would’ve been able to make it work in that small town against all odds. And yet the director went with the most heart-wrenching outcome she could, swerving out of line with Shaw’s novel.
I’ll let you know when I stop shaking from the physical assault, blood-curdling screams, and my eviscerated hopes for a happy ending.