Director: Simon Aboud
Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jeremy Irvine, Anna Chancellor
Run Time: 1h 32min
Opens: 25 May 2017
As Lady Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay didn’t have to do much yard work. She’s making up for that in this comedy-drama, in which she plays Bella Brown. Bella is an aspiring children’s book author, who works in a library. She’s particular about keeping tidy, but not being an outdoorsy type, has never tended to the garden. Bella’s landlord gives her an ultimatum: get the garden in order, or get evicted. Bella’s cantankerous neighbour Alfie Stephenson (Wilkinson), who mistreats his housekeeper/cook Vernon (Scott), happens to be a gifted horticulturist. Alfie has great disdain for Bella because of Bella’s “crimes” against flora, but reluctantly agrees to help Bella clean up the garden, when Vernon quits because he’s tired of enduring Alfie’s abuse. Meanwhile, a young, absent-minded inventor named Billy (Irvine), who often visits the library to do research, catches Bella’s eye.
Writer-director Simon Aboud has pitched This Beautiful Fantastic as a contemporary fairy tale. Hardcore Anglophiles might be enamoured with this concentrated dose of twee – practically every review of this film will use the adjective ‘twee’. However, more cynical viewers will be painfully aware of how the movie is constantly tripping over itself in pursuit of charm and whimsy. It’s a pleasant film to look at and is ultimately a good-natured work, but the film cranks up the ‘adorkable’ factor to sometimes insufferable levels. The works of Roald Dahl appear to have had an influence on Aboud, specifically Matilda and Esio Trot. The “young person befriends grumpy old man” trope has been explored in the likes of Up and A Man Called Ove, with This Beautiful Fantastic delivering a largely typical take on that device.
Aboud does have a talented, likeable cast on hand, even if the characters hew too closely to recognisable archetypes. As the shy writer who would much rather get lost in a book than in the great outdoors, Findlay is fine. However, the character is defined more by her tics than by anything else. The prologue gives us Bella’s backstory, depicting her upbringing in an orphanage and establishing her Obsessive-Compulsive traits. It’s nothing to get worked up over, but the use of OCD to make a character seem peculiar but loveable is a tired device.
Wilkinson can play a curmudgeon in his sleep. He gets all the best lines, but it’s obvious that the crust which encases Alfie will gradually crumble away as the film progresses. The transformation he undergoes is all too abrupt, and while there’s meant to be tragedy behind why Alfie has ended up this way, these layers aren’t sufficiently fleshed out.
Scott seems miscast as Vernon, the awkward housekeeper and talented chef. Vernon is a beleaguered widower who has borne the brunt of Alfie’s invective so he can make a living and support his young twin daughters. Scott has made a name for himself playing supercilious, often sinister characters, and is unable to summon the unguarded sweetness that seems vital to a character like Vernon.
Then there’s Irvine, who seems to have stepped straight out of a sitcom. With unkempt hair, wire-rimmed glasses, a pencil tucked behind his ear, and barely balancing all his gear and books, all Billy is missing is a tattoo reading “nerd” inscribed upon his forehead. Irvine can be endearing, but is often annoying here – not obnoxiously so, but enough to be frustrated with. The love triangle between Bella, Vernon and Billy is not as big a part of the story as this reviewer feared, but still plays out as enough of a distraction from the gardening montages, which frankly aren’t all that interesting.
Instead of sweeping one up into a gently heightened world of wonder, This Beautiful Fantastic is at once too manufactured and too mundane to warrant complete surrender. It does not indulge in overt emotional manipulation and one can sense the earnestness behind it, but an excess of quirk and a lack of substance hampers the film from being the little gem it could’ve been.
Summary: This Beautiful Fantastic wants to be a delight and a curiosity, but even though it has its moments, the movie is too self-conscious and sometimes grating.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars