“I’ve got a pain au chocolat and I’m going to eat it without a plate!” shouts Vernon through the door, after Bella has retreated, lovelorn, to her bed. It’s about the only way he can think of rousing Bella, a young woman whose life has been dominated by rules.
Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay) was found in a cardboard box as a baby, kept alive by the warmth of ducks. Now she lives in a flat on her own, and works at a library. “I’m only working there until my book gets published” she says, adding “it doesn’t really have a story at the moment…”, a description rather too near the knuckle for many aspiring writers.
Her boss is a wild-haired woman who uses pinboard messages, combined with fierce glares, to preserve the essential silence. The library is the perfect job for Bella; you barely need the Dewey Decimal System when Bella can tell you exactly where on a particular shelf the books you want are located.
Whimsical, quirky, “the oddest of oddballs” as the voiceover calls her, a “horticultural terrorist” as her curmudgeonly next door neighbour Alfie (Tom Wilkinson) prefers – all describe Bella.
And if you want a whole phrase, how about creator of an “unmitigated eco-apocalypse” as Alfie, an old, rich widower, says of her approach to gardening.
We’re already off to a good start as old, rich widowers are my very favourite kind of widower, especially if they like gardening.
This is a sweet story about a group of misfits – all obsessional in their own ways – struggling to make sense of the modern world, their coping mechanisms often resulting in retreating to self-created bubbles well away from modernity.
At times it’s hackneyed (by the end writer/director Simon Aboud doesn’t even try to be subtle with the gardening and spreading your wings metaphors). There are plenty of unanswered questions, and the final twist is easy to spot. But though it’s a lightweight tale, there’s also something rather satisfying about it, especially if you like watching other people doing all the heavy work (a bit like Alfie).
It’s never explicitly mentioned but Bella has OCD. Food is kept in neat piles on her plate, perfectly placed to create brightly coloured pictures; toothbrushes are lined up in vases like a pretty art installation. Cupboards contain a few tins of food, lined up by type, labels all facing the right way – “food prison” Vernon (Andrew Scott) calls it.
Her front door has several locks but she’s usually late for work as she spends so long pulling on the doorknob and letterbox to ensure the flat is properly secured before she can leave her doorstep.
It’s actually rather heartbreaking to watch as I used to do exactly the same before I left for work, until for some reason, during my first pregnancy, I stopped. I also stopped switching the stove off at the wall, and stopped taking my hair straighteners with me in my bag because I was too scared to leave them behind in case I’d accidentally left them on. All of this to ensure the house didn’t burn down. (I’ve never met an OCD sufferer who has faith in thermostats, or locksmiths.)
Still at least all this meant that watching This Beautiful Fantastic I identified with the heroine, even though I tend not to go for prim button-up blouses, calf-length skirts and wide-brimmed hats. In fact none of my clothes require hyphens, though some probably require a few extra inches of material.
The film is set in the present day, but Bella with her old-fashioned clothes and curly bob, and Billy (Jeremy Irvine), a rather diffident young inventor she meets in the library, both look like they’ve come from an Agatha Christie Miss Marple adaptation.
These three very different men – crosspatch plant lover Alfie; his ex-cook Vernon, who starts working for Bella when Alfie sacks him; and shy young Billy – all try to help Bella escape her bounds and be herself.
Alfie is certainly cantankerous to start with, berating Bella for letting the garden get into such a state, and Vernon for pretty much everything else. But with her landlord threatening to have her evicted if the garden isn’t tidied up, he eventually softens and agrees to a deal where Vernon will start cooking his meals again, if Alfie helps Bella with her garden.
Meanwhile her tentative friendship with Billy is deepening; soon he invites her to see his latest invention, a mechanical flying bird. She’s called Luna and looks like a phoenix, the mythical creature that rose from the ashes to live its life again; Bella makes up off-the-cuff stories about her.
The characters aren’t particularly layered (Billy and Vernon seem underwritten). Alfie’s metamorphosis to a cuddly, avuncular Percy Thrower type is too fast, and even when he calls her on the phone to tell her to get a move on with the gardening, you can almost hear him gruffly twinkling down the line. It’s not long before he’s even being nice to Vernon.
And Vernon’s first foray into her house, turning up with his twin daughters in tow to cook her breakfast at 7am, must break all Bella’s boundaries, yet she doesn’t seem upset.
The movie is gently humorous: “I warned you, laundry was never Vernon’s strong point” says Alfie, wearing a pink shirt and waving a pink handkerchief, as Vernon hangs out her pink washing, discoloured after he accidentally included a red sock in with her whites.
Wilkinson is always good though here he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Brown Findlay is sweet with an out-of-this-world demeanour, and never resorts to goofiness.
Ultimately this is an enjoyable and beautifully shot story of people gradually breaking out of the restrictive lives they’ve built themselves. Alfie’s the perfect guide for Bella, working with nature, relating stories about his favourite plants; Bella, despite being a writer, has too often focused on staying safe. Working on her garden forces her to balance that tendency with its natural wildness: “a world of beautifully ordered chaos; that’s chaos, not calamity”, Alfie says.
Watch the trailer for This Beautiful Fantastic: