After watching This Beautiful Fantastic through twice, I’m still not one hundred percent sure if I liked it or not. It’s an odd little independent film, calling to mind a sort of de-saturated, languid Pushing Daisies in its storybook-like narrative and set pieces. Starring Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey), Andrew Scott (Sherlock), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton), and Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), This Beautiful Fantastic tells the story of Bella Brown, a meek, antisocial orphan with obsessive-compulsive tendencies who longs to be a children’s author, and the arrival of three very different men into her life: Alfie (Wilkinson), her ill-tempered neighbor; Vernon (Scott), Alfie’s long-suffering cook and housekeeper; and Billy (Irvine), a regular patron of the library where Bella works. When Bella is told that she must fix up her home’s garden within a month or risk being evicted, Alfie and Vernon take her under their wing, so to speak, which has the effect of setting up the rather tired narrative trope of people becoming fast friends and changing one another’s lives within a fixed time frame and a ticking clock. Just as Bella must tame the overgrown horror of a garden in her backyard and put it to rights, she must learn to take care of herself and of her own needs that she has neglected for so long.
On several levels, Bella’s characterization has all the makings of the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype — she’s conventionally attractive, melancholy, sweetly helpless, quirky — which the out-of-place contextualization by Alfie does nothing to contradict. It is Alfie who presents Bella’s quasi-Dickensian past as an orphan as voiceover narration at the beginning of the film, which muddies the issue of whose point of view will be privileged right off the bat. Indeed, This Beautiful Fantastic could have just simply gone with Alfie as the main character — the vituperative, lonely old man who learns to be happy again by helping the fanciful girl next door. Yet Bella is the protagonist, whose desires and needs further the narrative of the film, not Alfie’s, which is a crucial deviation from the point of Manic Pixie Dream Girl (who exists merely as an object to the men around her). As a result, This Beautiful Fantastic does a messy dance with the specter of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because Bella does seem to fulfill this role for Alfie, Vernon, and Billy in the diegetic sense, even as her subjectivity is placed at the forefront for the audience. It’s almost as if This Beautiful Fantastic wants to have it both ways: the odd-duck, pretty girl who changes the lives of the men around her for the better, but who is also the main character in her own story, and the effect is murky and downright unsettling.
For her part, Findlay does the best with what she is given, and manages to walk the line between being overly precious and seeming genuinely surprised and pleased when she realizes that the people around her really do care about her after all. Were This Beautiful Fantastic more concerned with Bella as a character, so much more could have been made of how her past as a lonely orphan shapes the difficulties she has in connecting with others, but instead Bella’s inner turmoil manifests in the filmic shorthand of her needing to organize her food perfectly on her plate — easy to understand, but not particularly illuminating or groundbreaking in terms of how mental illness is depicted.
Alfie is also very much a stock character type that has been driven into the ground — the elderly, nosy neighbor (who, in this case, is a gardening expert); the rude, wealthy old man who treats everyone around him like dirt for no good reason; the widower who has decided to just be unpleasant to everyone following the death of his wife. But because Tom Wilkinson is a charming actor who has probably never been bad in any project he’s acted in, we manage to warm to Alfie by the end of the movie, when he inevitably dies (after his illness is clumsily mentioned early in the film and then never brought up again). Andrew Scott’s Vernon is another character who could have stood being better developed over the course of the movie’s plot — a single father of twins who cooks and cleans for Alfie, despite years of abuse, who then rebels against Alfie by basically becoming Bella’s housekeeper and cook and deciding to help her with the garden as well. Scott’s performance is genuine and unaffected — a true world away from the creepy artifice of his Jim Moriarty in Sherlock. Jeremy Irvine’s Billy fares the worst; as Bella’s eventual love interest, he feels completely unnecessary to the overall plot of This Beautiful Fantastic (and frankly, Vernon would have been a much better boyfriend for Bella). Despite Billy’s mechanical inventions eventually inspiring Bella to stop making excuses and finally chase her dream by writing a children’s book, the romantic aspect of their relationship is not so much undercooked as left raw and runny.
Overall, I would have to say that This Beautiful Fantastic seems to be more enamored with itself than with typical film elements like plot and character development. Some of the individual shots are framed rather nicely, as if director Simon Aboud (Comes a Bright Day) came up with tableaux he wanted to see on screen and then just dashed out some plot points to serve as connective tissue. Even though the movie’s events occur within the arbitrary time limit, the story almost feels episodic and downright plodding at times, as if the film is as unsure and trepidatious as Bella herself, and is waiting for a reason to go from stasis to dynamism.
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Deborah Krieger is a freelance arts and culture writer and nascent art/media historian and curator. She can be found at www.i-on-the-arts.com and on Instagram @debonthearts.