For those inclined toward the whimsical and literary, Simon Aboud’s This Beautiful Fantastic embodies the timelessness of a storybook tale through a free and unabashed re-imagining of old fashioned sentiments and story tropes. Following an adult woman’s coming-of-age through the help of unlikely friends, Aboud’s story is reminiscent of classics like Matilda or The Secret Garden while also situated in the relatively modern and adult world. It is a film dedicated to childlike fantasy and forgotten beauty, but also to archetypes, which regrettably lends the film to predictability and hinders it from moving beyond its framework.
This Beautiful Fantastic begins with a character sketch of a young girl named Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay). She is prone toward literary, yet isolatory pursuits, and could also be described as “unordinary.” That young girl grows up to be a similar young woman, although one that has now literally buried herself in books as a librarian’s assistant and has built walls between herself and the outside world through obsessive-compulsive tics, cleanliness, and a respectful fear of the outdoors. Still determined to become a writer, Bella yearns for knowledge and interaction until she gets more than what she asks for after coming into the crosshairs of her entitled and particular older neighbor (Tom Wilkinson). He comes after her for not properly maintaining her garden, and she puts kindling to the fire after his cook/housekeeper (Andrew Scott) leaves his employ for hers. To top it off, the attentions of Billy (Jeremy Irvine), an inquisitive and handsome regular patron at the library helps to send Bella’s world topsy turvy.
Aboud creates an attractive film by creating an atmospheric and plot-based storybook quality. The most obvious of indicators are his characters. The world of This Beautiful Fantastic is populated by a quirky writer living in a cottage that one could describe as a hovel, an exuberant housekeeper offering moral support, a curmudgeonly-turned-benevolent neighbor, and an inventor as a love interest. On paper, the characters sound out-dated and nostalgic (especially the idea that a librarian’s assistant could be able to afford a daily housekeeper/cook), but within the confines of this story and the filmmaker’s dedication to fancy, the sentimentality fits like an old glove.
A dual focus on the idea of the home-building and world-building within the context of invention (or reinvention) creates a space in the film welcoming of Aboud’s fantastical elements. The film’s “A Story” focuses on Bella’s efforts to re-create her garden at the behest of threats from her landlord and neighbor. As a woman who keeps a strictly tidy home, but disregards the upkeep of its exterior, Bella’s character arc is intrinsically tied to the rejuvenation of her garden, where an activity connotative of growth, development, beauty, and cultivation, parallels her own personal growth as a storyteller and a woman of society. Aboud is thereby textbook in his ability to marry character and plot in beautiful cohesion.
From there, Aboud visually styles his storybook tale with plenty of whimsical warmth. Bella’s drawings literally come to life off of the page, as do Billy’s bird-like inventions. Although the characters appear to live in the modern world (the time period is never specified), they dress in somewhat transcendent period garb (particularly Bella) and avoid any real interactions with modern invention, aside from one short misplaced scene showing cars on the street and people wearing what appears to be 21st century fashions. The old world sentimentality provides a quaintly fanciful story with an equally quaint backdrop.
As a Downton Abbey alumna, Findlay steps into the role of Bella effortlessly. She is visibly adorable, poised, and charming, but with the appropriate amount of seriousness to not underplay Bella’s setbacks and personal misfortunes. Wilkinson is also a comfortable player opposite Findlay. Although he is given the stock character of the lonely old man needing a sweet young person to bestow wisdom and gifts onto, his performance is nowhere near drab, but layered, comical, and heartwarming. On the other hand, the film as a whole suffers slightly from its use of archetypes and its picture perfect packaging, as Bella’s story is never surprising, and pairs a character typical arc with a focus on traditional storytelling that shies away from testing the boundaries of its classic framework. The one character maneuvering outside of Bella’s carefully cultivated world, Billy, is ultimately treated as an afterthought and a placeholder for a romantic plot (which is also a shame for Irvine, who has had quite a few false starts thus far in the indie world).
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Aboud’s film is undeniably pleasant and a warm tribute to classic fanciful storytelling. His characters populate a richly built world navigated by a fluently gliding plot. On the whole, it does what it seems Aboud has set out to do, creating a delightful coming-of-age story nostalgic for a better time. In doing so, however, the film ironically lacks in innovation and creativity in sending these well-known character types out of their comfort zones and into new, fresh territory.