Saul Naumann (Richard Gere) is a religious studies professor, living in suburban Oakland with his wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche), daughter Eliza (Flora Cross) and her older brother Aaron (Max Minghella). Saul sees something mystical in 9-year old Eliza's gift for accurately spelling words, as she progresses upwards towards the national spelling bee championships in Washington. But both Miriam and Aaron are increasingly isolated from the family unit, each for their own reasons, and Eliza's triumphant march to spelling victory is marred by the implosion of the family.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As rich with themes as it is, Bee Season reminds us why some good books are best left on the page. The irony in this case is that it was Anthony Minghella - the man who is given special thanks in the end credits for his unspecified assistance, but his son Max plays Aaron - who pointed out during our interview about The English Patient which he directed, that "there is a vast difference between the prose sentence and the film sentence". He was referring to the complexity and challenge of making visual something that is written. A reader can readily expand the mental image from the prose, but the filmmaker has to make it tangible.
The internal worlds of characters in a novel are the well season stuffing of literature; we devour those books that take us into the hearts and souls of the protagonists. On film, these internal journeys are much harder to render and make engaging. While I can intellectualise about the Naumann family and its troubles, even associate with it through the sort of personal experience we all have within family relationships, it doesn't make for emotionally engaging or otherwise interesting cinema. Two thirds of the film verges on the boring, unless you are an extreme minimalist. The imaginary exclamation marks that we as readers of Goldberg's book might supply are subtle things that aren't replicated on the screen.
Young Flora Cross makes a mesmerising debut as Eliza, though, Max Minghella is terrific as her older brother Aaron who explodes emotionally with the frustration of his dysfunctional family, and Juliette Binoche delivers a wonderfully conflicted and troubled Miriam, whose parents' death in her youth has left a gash on her psyche. But Richard Gere, while always efficient as an actor, seems an odd choice for the character of Saul and doesn't really convince me.
Review by Louise Keller:
The themes of Bee Season are as intricate and complex as letters of the alphabet and the words used for communication. This powerful multifaceted drama takes us into the intimate workings of a family and the tenuous, delicate threads that keep it together. Although Richard Gere never quite convinces as the controlling religious studies professor, it's a powerful and intriguing film with characters that are as detached from each other as they are different. The emotional crescendo twists its knife callously as everyone's world crumbles. And while the film takes us to places we don't expect to go, there are some obvious difficulties with the adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel to the screen. Thoughts and moods don't always translate between mediums.
At first glance, Gere's Saul is the ideal husband and father. He cooks and takes a keen interest in his children's pursuits. There are violin-cello duets with his teenage son Aaron (Max Minghella) and now that Amy (Flora Cross) is making a name for herself in the local, district and state spelling bees, he rearranges his schedule so he can tutor her himself. But we soon realise the full extent of his controlling nature and life is every bit as multi-faceted as the kaleidoscope that Juliette Binoche's sad-eyed Miriam gives to her young daughter. Aaron is the only one with insight and finds solace with Kate Bosworth's Hare Krishna follower Chale. When Saul and Miriam realise that Amy's abilities stem from her gift of naturally visualising letters and words, they each have a different response. Saul is intent to use Amy in his pursuit of a higher state of spiritual being, while Miriam physically and emotionally withdraws totally.
Cross and Minghella (son of Oscar winning director Anthony) are impressive in their first major film roles, and Binoche allows us to feel the pain of Miriam's torment. The Spelling Bee to which the title refers, becomes the catalyst for both the family's breakdown and salvation. Ironically and touchingly, it's the nurtured who become the nurturers.
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BEE SEASON (M)
CAST: Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, Flora Cross, Max Minghella, Kate Bosworth
PRODUCER: Albert Berger, Dr. Winfried Hammacher, Ron Yerxa
DIRECTOR: Scott McGehee, David Siegel
SCRIPT: Naomi Foner (novel by Myla Goldberg)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Giles Nuttgens
EDITOR: Lauren Zuckerman
MUSIC: Peter Nashel
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Kelly McGehee
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 17, 2005
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: March 29, 2006