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The beat of tiny wings

03 December 2008

A new film plots the effort it takes to create calm. Review by Stephen J. Brown

“WHEN I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it be” could easily have been the theme song of The Secret Life of Bees (Cert. 12A), which is based on a best-selling US novel by Sue Monk Kidd.

Mother Mary here is a carved Madonna, as black as are the Boatwright sisters, who give it pride of place in their bee-keeping farmhouse. They even name their honey jars after her, which leads Lily (Dakota Fanning) a white runaway teenager, and Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) the black hired help of Lily’s brutalised father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), to their door.

Ray’s wife died accidentally years ago at Lily’s hands, although it’s something she can’t remember. Lily has clung throughout to the hope that her mother never intended to abandon her, but she can’t be sure. We know through flashbacks that T. Ray was at one time deeply in love with Lily’s mother. So sad to watch good love go bad. As is often the case, one is left wondering what happened. The explanation given to Lily is that “sometimes not feeling is the only way you can survive”.

Lost love, lost mother, and lost opportunities abound. The sisters themselves — named after the months of summer — have previously lost another sister. May (Sophie Okonedo), a simple-minded, generous soul, goes to pieces at the slightest hint of sadness. Her remedy is a “wailing wall” she has constructed and into which she inserts her petitionary prayers. June (Alicia Keys) is a highly-defended personality, as feisty in resisting marriage to her long-time suitor as she is in civil rights campaigning: it is 1964, and in South Carolina racists struggle, often violently, to accept that times they are a-changing.

Queen Latifah as August presides over the household with a gentle rule. She represents home for lost souls. Rosaleen is renamed “July”, finding at last an acceptance she has craved all her life. Lily discovers the truth — one that sets her free — about her mother. “It’s not just about truth, Lily. It’s what you do with it,” counsels August. Even T. Ray (in one of several handkerchief moments) experiences a calling home, although he still has a considerable way to go emotionally and spiritually.

The sisters sometimes metamorphose collectively into the Prodigal Son’s loving father, but for their own demons. At one point we hear the sound of 100,000 bee-wings cooling the hive. In the same way, keeping things tranquil takes great human effort. But if it results in a taste of honey then their prayers to the black Madonna have not been in vain.

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