Gardening, mechanical creatures, library books and neighborly friction figure in a magic-tinged fable starring Jessica Brown Findlay and Tom Wilkinson.
In the gently comic, slightly tart fairy tale This Beautiful Fantastic, a novice gardener named Bella Brown learns to till the soil, to weed and plant and prune. Leading a pitch-perfect cast, Downton Abbey star Jessica Brown Findlay plays this “oddest of oddballs,” an orphan whose care as an infant was handled briefly by ducks. As the earth gradually yields to the grownup Bella’s newfound know-how, none of what transpires is earth-shattering, but it’s the way it happens, with the simplicity and sense of wonder of an old-fashioned picture book, that makes her story, however wispy, delightful.
Writer-director Simon Aboud doesn’t push the quirk factor; even when the narrative is at its most playful, he keeps it rooted to a lived-in reality. Mining familiar territory with an earnest clarity, he shapes a mild yet winning fantasy about hearts opening and friendships blooming. The movie should travel well as it books international dates after its North American festival premiere.
In a lead role that had been pegged to Carey Mulligan and Felicity Jones at various times during the production’s development, Findlay combines fresh-faced innocence and a nascent streak of inner steel as Bella, a creature of rigid habit whose world changes after her crotchety neighbor puts her in his sites.
Tom Wilkinson’s Alfie Stephenson is one of those engagingly acerbic misanthropes who are easier to find in literature and film than in life. He delivers crisp, irked assessments of the young woman next door, first in brief bits of voiceover narration and then face-to-face. (His eloquently cutting remarks probably played a key role in the screenplay’s selection for the Brit List, a U.K. version of the Black List of unproduced scripts.) Alfie’s chief complaint: Bella’s criminal neglect of her rented house’s backyard, which has turned into an overgrown English jungle of tangled greenery. Outraged by the abomination, he snitches on her to her landlord, who gives Bella a month to tidy up the garden or be evicted.
From an insult-spewing nemesis, Alfie gradually, and predictably, morphs into a source of inspiration for Bella, goading her to push past her fear of flora and embrace the horticultural blank slate at hand — a smart enticement to a young librarian who dreams of writing and illustrating children’s books but hasn’t yet figured out what she wants to say.
The bargaining chip between them is Vernon, the housekeeper and talented cook who leaves Alfie’s employ for the kinder, if less well-heeled, domain of Bella’s cottage. Played by Andrew Scott (Moriarty on Sherlock) with the right mix of vulnerability and gusto, Vernon is a widowed dad who agrees to resume cooking meals for his demanding former boss if Alfie will help Bella keep her home by sharing his gardening expertise.
Vernon’s culinary exuberance and Alfie’s lush, colorful, quasi-wild garden (played by that of London-based garden designer Peter Beardsley) embolden Bella and chip away at her penchant for orderliness. So too does sweetly bumbling inventor Billy Trantor (Jeremy Irvine), who frequents her workplace and puts Bella at odds with the comically imperious head librarian (Anna Chancellor) — a woman who’s given to spelling out admonishments on a letter board and sometimes resorts to a microphone to amplify her demand for silence. In turn, Bella inspires them too, although the character remains a tad too passive and reactive.
The highlight among Billy’s handcrafted mechanical critters — and one of the most memorable elements in a film that isn’t the stuff of deep, lasting impressions — is a metallic bird named Luna, scruffily elegant and powered by moonlight. (Its brief flight was manipulated by puppeteers who were then digitally painted out, in the film’s sole CGI sequence.)
Though it has been compared to Amelie, the movie has a leaner sensibility, never lapsing into froufrou. Aboud, whose feature debut was the 2012 crime thriller Comes a Bright Day, elicits an unforced energy, with a touch of the elegiac, in the performances and every other aspect of This Beautiful Fantastic. In Ian Fulcher’s costumes, Alexandra Walker’s interiors and Anne Nikitin’s score, the whimsy of the ephemeral proceedings is undeniable but understated. Alfie’s cherished flowers have an abstract radiance in cinematographer Mike Eley’s out-of-focus close-ups; in more straightforward fashion, the intensifying connections among Bella and her new friends have a radiance too.