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D: Simon Aboud / 91m

Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jeremy Irvine, Anna Chancellor, Eileen Davies, Paul Hunter

Bella Brown (Findlay) was a foundling child, abandoned in a park and kept alive by ducks. She has grown up to be a young woman with obsessive compulsive disorder, and an ambition to be an author. She works at her local library where her love of books has made her a valiuable, if persistently late, member of staff. Her home is a modest property with an expansive garden, one that she doesn’t maintain due to an extreme aversion to flora. She is shy, modest, inquisitive, and in the words of her neighbour, Alfie Stevenson (Wilkinson), has been “sent here to test us”.

One day at the library, Bella meets Billy (Irvine), a young man interested in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. He leaves behind a piece of paper that Bella can see has the imprint of a drawing on it. She takes it home and uses a pencil to raise the image, which is of a bird. As she gazes on it, the window to the garden flies open due to a storm outside, and the drawing is whisked away into the branches of a tree. Plucking up courage, Bella goes into the garden and retrieves it. In the process she falls and loses consciousness. When she comes to, Bella finds herself in the home of her neighbour, Alfie, and being tended to by his doctor, Milly (Davies), while in turn, Alfie is being tended to by his housekeeper, Vernon (Scott). Alfie is an old curmudgeon, and berates Bella for the condition of her garden, calling her a “horticultural terrorist”.

Alfie’s displeasure at the state of Bella’s garden leads to Vernon working for her instead, which in turn leads to a battle of wills as Alfie tries to browbeat Bella into letting Vernon go back to him. Soon after, Bella receives a visit from her landlord, Mr O’Brien (Hunter), who tells her that unless her garden is kept to a reasonable standard, then she’ll be evicted. Bella has a month to make good on this condition, and with the help of Vernon and Alfie she begins to tackle the momentous job of clearing and redesigning the garden before O’Brien returns. Meanwhile, she begins a relationship with Billy, who proves to be an inventor. But when she sees him with another woman, she suffers such a sense of betrayal and loss that her commitment to the garden is put in jeopardy, and with O’Brien’s return getting closer and closer, it’s going to take a small miracle to keep Bella in her home.

Although This Beautiful Fantastic is only the second movie written and directed by Simon Aboud – after Comes a Bright Day (2012) (itself well worth checking out) – it’s not a feature that falls foul of “difficult second movie syndrome”. Instead it’s an appealing, sweet-natured, even goofy at times, romantic-comedy-drama that does its best to put a smile on its audience’s faces, and all with a lightness of touch that makes it an undeniable pleasure to watch. Aboud’s “movie in microcosm” is such a delight from start to finish that it’s like having cheesecake ahead of a main course at a restaurant: it’s definitely a movie to savour.

And it’s all so simply constructed and put together, with Aboud’s confidence behind the camera matching the quality of his screenplay, and the performances fitting perfectly into the whimsical nature of the material. This isn’t a movie that springs any surprises on its audience, and it’s definitely not a movie that tries to be different, but it does have a tremendous amount of quiet, understated charm, and a delightfully winning way about it. From its opening scenes, which offer a brief appraisal of Bella’s childhood coupled with Alfie’s sniping comments about her, This Beautiful Fantastic is a movie that sets out its stall from the start, and which doesn’t disappoint as it expands on its contemporary fairy tale theme and keeps its narrative wrapped tightly around its quartet of main characters.

In keeping with its lightness of touch and playful nature, the romance between Bella and Billy is engaging and kept just this side of annoyingly saccharine, with Irvine’s eager puppy of a young man a perfect foil for Findlay’s more restrained, and yet attentive Bella. Their relationship fits the bill in terms of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl-through-unfortunate-mix-up, and then regains-girl-through-apologetic-explanation-of-mix-up, but again it’s all done with the full acknowledgment by all concerned that this is a fairy tale, and in fairy tales there are certain rules that have to be followed, and one of them is that the princess always gets her prince.

With the romantic elements having been taken care of, Aboud is free to create dozens of comedic moments that act as an undercurrent to the central drama of Bella making sure her garden doesn’t remain an eyesore. Alfie’s cantankerous, acidic nature is portrayed by Wilkinson with a deftness of touch that makes a virtue out of waspish pomposity, and the character’s arrogant outward appearance belies a romantic soul whose passion for horticulture is more personal than expected. As Vernon, Scott delivers a mannered, sympathetic portrayal of a widower with two twin girls whose sense of self-worth has taken a bit of battering thanks to Alfie’s bullying ways. But there’s a way back for him, and Scott makes sure that Vernon’s recurring way of dealing with Alfie is one of the movie’s more pleasing highlights. For her part, Findlay is something of a “straight woman”, and though she gives a fine, rounded performance, she’s not required to “dazzle” as much as her male co-stars, and has to leave the comedy to Chancellor, who plays her boss, Mrs Bramble (her insistence on complete silence within the library leads to a great sight gag three quarters in).

The drama is concerned with Bella’s voyage of self-discovery through gardening, as evidenced by her checking obsessively that her front door is closed every time she leaves home, and which falls by the wayside as she begins to experience love for the first time (though whether being in love really constitutes a cure for OCD is a bit of a stretch). Bella gains in confidence, and her ambitions as a writer, stalled until the arrival of Billy, allow her to blossom even further beyond the confines of her garden. Aboud ensures that Bella’s journey is punctuated with the necessary number of setbacks, all of which allow for and encourage her personal (allegorical) growth at the same time that the garden begins to flourish also. Alfie develops too, although his development is less about personal growth and more about acknowledging the past and its lasting effect on him. Again, Aboud handles all these elements with a great deal of skill and compassion for his characters, and the end result is a movie that will make you laugh a lot, cry on occasion, and feel glad that you took a chance on a movie that could have missed its target by a country mile.

Rating: 8/10 – with a couple of last-minute revelations that unfortunately undermine the good work Aboud has put in in assembling his movie, This Beautiful Fantastic is still a movie that provides a very pleasant viewing experience indeed; one of those movies that make you feel great if you’ve found it without help from critics or word of mouth, it’s a lovely piece that knows its limitations and works within them to provide a beautifully designed and established visual delight – just like Bella’s garden.

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