This Beautiful Fantastic banks on its whimsy to ingratiate itself to viewers.
Simon Aboud’s This Beautiful Fantastic bills itself as a contemporary fairy tale about an unlikely friendship between a charmingly eccentric librarian (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her curmudgeonly old neighbor (Tom Wilkinson) brought together by an overgrown garden. As you can imagine, this premise is hardly unlikely, given how many films involve softening a crotchety old man. Predictability, then, is the film’s greatest weakness. And Aboud’s script doesn’t help matters by adding thinly drawn subplots that muddle the central garden tale but not enough to detract from its derivative story.
From the outset, This Beautiful Fantastic plays up the fact that it is a fairy tale. Specifically, a fairy tale about “the oddest of oddballs” (aka our protagonist Bella Brown). An orphan raised by nuns now working as a librarian and aspiring to write a children’s book, Bella is textbook “quirky.” She’s meticulous about the inside of her home, but her seeming agoraphobia prevents her from tending to her garden. Her neighbor Alfie (Wilkinson) takes personal offense to the overgrowth, especially when his cantankerous behavior chases away his cook, Vernon (Andrew Scott), into an unpaid position as Bella’s personal chef and nursemaid.
The setting is ambiguous about the time period, but Bella’s world is meant to be delightfully twee, as evidenced by the costuming that’s reminiscent of the 1910s. While Alfie and the garden plot illustrate Bella blossoming into a better functioning member of society, the romantic subplot between Bella and a library regular, Billy (Jeremy Irvine), an avid scholar of artist-inventors who builds mechanical animals, is contrived and unbelievable. It’s a mix of the fantastical and the steampunk, but given its limited screen time, it brings little to Bella’s personal journey.
Within a reasonably generous runtime, however, Aboud struggles to balance his subplots into a narrative that maintains enough stakes to interest viewers and to give each plot enough time to establish plausibility. In an attempt to build tension, Alfie reports the overgrown garden to Bella’s landlord who then gives her a one month deadline to tame the brambles and vines. The trouble is, transitions between garden scenes where Alfie half-assists Bella in learning the art of horticulture and scenes involving her budding romance with Billy are strained. The pacing is such that little seems to happen until the third act when things all-too swiftly come together. A last minute twist involving Billy, however, barely earns Bella any sympathy, since their relationship at that point is based on meager scenes that establish little real connection between the two beside the fact that they are both quirky eccentrics.
Aboud never manages to succeed in making his film a unique offering or one that can even boast a coherent script. This Beautiful Fantastic banks on its whimsy to ingratiate itself to viewers. Its lack of substance, however, is an obstacle to viewing the film as anything more than rehashed cliché. Findlay, for her part, plays the wide-eyed chaser of whimsy adequately. But Wilkinson provides the best performance of the film which, given the fact that Alfie is a stock character, only means that Wilkinson has perfected the grumpy old man shtick. With Aboud continually channeling similar tales of personal growth, these stock characters and plot points ring resoundingly hollow.