D: Alan Rickman / 116m
Cast: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Helen McCrory, Stanley Tucci, Steven Waddington, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Paul, Danny Webb
France, 1682. At the behest of King Louis XIV (Rickman), landscape garden designers are invited to submit their designs for the planned new gardens at the Palace of Versailles. Sabine De Barra (Winslet), a widow who has a keen eye for the disruptive yet beguiling influence that disorder can have on a garden, meets with the King’s renowned landscape architect, André Le Notre (Schoenaerts). He is concerned by her attitude and lack of formal training, but he nevertheless hires her to build one of the main gardens at Versailles, the Rockwork Grove.
Sabine begins her work in earnest but is initially hampered in her efforts by the other, male, designers. Le Notre intervenes for her, and as her design begins to take shape, he finds himself increasingly attracted to Sabine, despite his being married. He takes to spending more time with her, something which his wife (McCrory) notices. While Le Notre wrestles with his sense of honour and marital duty, Sabine unwittingly earns the respect of the King, and also his brother, Philippe (Tucci). As the project nears completion, Sabine is invited to attend the King’s court, where her honesty and subtle persuasiveness earns her many friends among the ladies in waiting – all except one, who decides to sabotage Sabine’s design…
An old-fashioned heritage picture, A Little Chaos – Rickman’s second directorial feature after The Winter Guest (1997) – is a movie that will sit well with anyone who’s seen similar movies from the Thirties, replete as it is with a woman battling against the preconceptions of her gender and the sexism of the times, a romance where convention says the couple should remain apart, and a minimal amount of political intrigue at the King’s court. It’s a pleasant movie to watch, not least because of Winslet’s emotive yet (mostly) carefully detailed performance, and shows Rickman is adept at staging scenes for their maximum emotional effect as well as their visual splendour.
And yet, while the movie has plenty of positives about it, it’s let down by the romantic storyline, with Le Notre and Sabine’s ardour for each other feeling watered down and sounding less than enthusiastically entered into. Schoenaerts never looks entirely comfortable in these scenes, and Winslet too seems unsure of how to play the drama of their situation. In contrast, the scene where Sabine and the King exchange views on gardening and various flowers, is laden with subtext and deliberate innuendo, leaving the viewer with no doubt that, in a different life, the romance would be between them and not Sabine and Le Notre.
Rickman is a generous director when it comes to his cast, and he finds a willing aide in Ellen Kuras’ often stunning cinematography, for the movie is beautiful to look at. And as historical romantic dramas go there’s a degree of humour that helps leaven the seriousness of the story, while Tucci’s flamboyant Philippe gives the movie a much needed boost just as it was starting to sag. And there’s a wonderful, non-intrusive score courtesy of Peter Gregson.
Rating: 7/10 – enjoyable if lacking in any appreciable depth, A Little Chaos is gentle, harmless, and a pleasant diversion from this year’s slew of mega-blockbusters; with Winslet, Rickman and McCrory winning the acting plaudits, this trip back to 17th Century France is an undemanding one but worth seeing nevertheless.