The marketing campaign behind The Secret Life of Bees gave me the impression that the film would be two hours of overemphasised metaphor and sentimental mush. In reality, this can be considered a fairly accurate assessment, but as the story progressed there seemed to be at least a little more to it than trite cliché.
Set in South Carolina during the mid-sixties,the film tells the story of Lily (Dakota Fanning), who accidently shot her mother at the age of four and has consequently grown up treated with contempt by her bitter father, T. Ray.
Her character is, in spite of this, an inexplicably well-adjusted, confident and mature (although suitably self involved) fourteen year-old, verging on self-righteous. She has spent a lonely childhood dreaming of her mother and trying to deal with her guilt; with no answers or support from her father.
Lily’s story is propelled forward when T. Ray’s black employee — and Lily’s pseudo-mother figure, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) — is beaten and arrested while trying to register to vote. Lily rushes to the rescue, helps Rosaleen escape and together they run away. A mysterious tile painted with a picture of the Madonna, which previously belonged to Lily’s mother, leads the pair to the home and bee farm of three more mother figures, the Boatwright sisters — August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo) — who unquestioningly take Lily and Rosaleen under their wing.
These women are not like any either of two runaways has ever encountered before, who for the first time feel safe. Although it requires a significant suspension of desire for realism, Sophie Okonedo’s portrayal of May Boatright is notably enjoyable — a deeply empathetic woman carrying the world’s grief in her heart. The character is ingeniously and very effectively used as a constant reminder of the hardship the characters have suffered — a tear-jerker personified.
Despite the lack of justification provided for the Boatwrights agreeing to accommodate the strangers who turn up on their doorstep, the largely two-dimensional and inconsistent central characters, and some strangely inconclusive subplots, the film is as successful as it can be.
However, it seems that most of these flaws can be attributed to the Sue Monk Kidd novel on which the film is based, and given such a fundamental limitation, the achievements of the cast and director Gina Prince-Blythewood are, it must be conceded, admirable.