This slightly oddball, feel good film is formulaic in many ways but with idiosyncratic styling that lends it an off-kilter, other-worldliness. Beginning with a fairy tale realism, we see Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay) abandoned as a baby in a park. Watched over by ducks until she is found, she grows up without a family and with a fear and loathing of nature.
As an adult, Bella’s dedication to an ordered life is shown as quirky – food arranged symmetrically, a very tidy house – but also as an obsessive compulsive disorder – checking the front door is closed with a repetitive ritual. As nice white people do in movies, she lives in a lovely spacious flat which is really a house and seems well beyond the means of her job in a local library.
Her life is upended when her landlord insists she maintain her jungle of a garden or she will be evicted. She has a fear of nature, remember, so the prospect is beyond her. Through a slightly contrived circumstance, Vernon (Andrew Scott), the cook and cleaner of her curmudgeonly neighbour, Alfie (Tom Wilkinson), starts to work for her. With reluctance and much persuading from Vernon, Alfie agrees to help her with the garden.
It’s not hard to see where this story is going. There are a couple of romantic interests; Vernon, who seems to be the perfect man and Billy (Jeremy Irvine), a scatterbrained inventor who frequents the library. It seems likely that both Bella and Alfie will learn some kindness along the way, Bella for herself and Alfie for all the people in his life that he regularly berates.
This film is odd in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is not firmly set in any particular era. When you see a long shot it seems modern day, judging by the cars and references to mobile devices but everything else seems to be archaic. Bella channels Sybil, the character she played in Downton Abbey, in clothes and hair that would not have looked out of place in 1910. She writes on a typewriter and has a pre-LCD digital clock. When gardening she dresses in full mourning.
Billy’s style is nerdy inventor circa 1950, with round specs and gadgets hanging from his jacket pockets. The head librarian where Bella works, Bramble (Anna Chancellor), dresses as if the 70s never ended and communicates with plastic letters on a peg board sign. This mish-mash of eras is so erratic that its meaning is lost. Are these people stuck in the past? Maybe, but this seems to have little significance; it is stylistic and aesthetic more than anything
The other oddity is in the two-dimensional nature of the characters. We spend quite a bit of time with Bella, Alfie and Vernon but find out very little about them other than the superficial facts of their lives. They feel like characters from a children’s story – fragile princess, grumpy, kindly king, faithful cook, wronged suitor.
There were some continuity errors that niggled, such as the curtain on the serving hatch that kept changing, but Sybil, sorry Bella, kept me engaged throughout. Bella’s OCD is dealt with in a particularly cinematic way; a quirk that disappears with just a bit of hard work, less self indulgence and the love a good man. I couldn’t help feeling this was doing a disservice to all those who experience this particular disorder.
Overall, this is a nice family movie that won’t challenge you too much nor offend any sensitivities or sensibilities. It’s a fairytale really, although the heroine definitely ends up with the wrong prince. Just saying.
Have you seen this film? Are you Team Vernon or Team Billy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.