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Story trumps storytelling in A Little Chaos, which reunites Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman, two stars of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, only this time without the gossamer touch and infinite understanding of character that are hallmarks of Jane Austen. A period drama about the private and professional struggles of a nonconformist female landscape architect hired to work on King Louis XIV’s gardens at Versailles, this decently acted film is agreeable entertainment, even if it works better on a scene by scene basis than in terms of overall flow.
It’s been 17 years since Rickman’s first stab at directing with 1997’s The Winter Guest, an adaptation of a play set in a bleak Scottish seaside town in which a series of vignettes were woven around the slow thaw of a grieving woman toward the prickly mother who intrudes on her sorrow. The fussy theatricality of that modest feature was perhaps embedded in its source material. But there’s a stiff staginess to parts of this more ambitiously scaled venture as well, despite it being dramatized directly for the screen by writers Allison Deegan, Rickman and Jeremy Brock.
Winslet plays the widowed Madame Sabine De Barra, whose rejection of stifling symmetry and her taste for incorporating the untamed elements of nature in her designs make her an unlikely match for master landscaper Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), known for his love of perfectly manicured classical order. In preparation for the move of the Sun King’s court from Paris to Versailles in 1682, Le Notre has been commissioned to create “gardens of exquisite and matchless beauty.” The scale and haste of the project require the hiring of additional hands.
Stirred by her forthright opinions, Andre engages Sabine to design the Rockwork Garden, an outdoor ballroom with fountain elements. But the sneers of her professional rivals, who are naturally all male, prove nothing compared to the vipers at court, where everyone is competing for favor.
Among the most ambitious of them is Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory), the socially savvy promoter behind her husband’s creative genius. While she dictated the terms of their open marriage arrangement to allow for her own strategic bed-hopping, she spots the signs of a connection between her husband and Sabine almost before they do, and sets about sabotaging both the relationship and the Rockwork project.
The romance between Andre and Sabine is clearly meant to be a slow-burn affair, but it blossoms in uncertain fits and starts. Partly, it suffers from a shortage of chemistry between Winslet and Schoenaerts, but more likely it’s because both of them are so gloomy and introspective — Andre is a brooding type in a loveless marriage and Sabine is plagued by remorse over the death of her husband and daughter.
There’s more life in a lovely central interlude during which the king (Rickman), in mourning for his Spanish Queen, doffs his wig and coat for a quiet moment in the shrubbery. When Sabine blunders in to talk perennials, she initially is unaware of his identity. But even after she wises up, he encourages her to dispense with deference and just chat, relishing the unaccustomed ease of an informal exchange.
As enjoyable as the extended scene is, with Winslet showing emotional candor and Rickman allowing glimpses of the solitude beneath the King’s world-weariness, it’s typical of the modern gloss that the script puts on its characters and their relationships. The worst example of this is a later scene at Fontainebleau, during which Sabine is ushered by the king’s mistress (Jennifer Ehle) into her ladies’ salon, and the group draws her out about her personal history, bonding over the sorrows of women. (Rickman’s Winter Guest star Phyllida Law plays a wilted rose among them.)
If the director and his co-writers had gone all the way in viewing this semi-fictionalized historical chapter through a prism of contemporary attitudes — like, say, Sofia Coppola in her crazy but invigorating and underrated Versailles pop movie, Marie Antoinette — it might have seemed less artificial. Even the textured physicality of cinematographer Ellen Kuras’ shooting style could have been pushed further. Instead, it just sounds clumsy when 17th century characters spout lines like “I’ll call in some favors.” Or worse, when Sabine says of Andre, “He is the most complete person I know.”
Sabine is a modern woman in that she rolls up her sleeves and gets hands-on with the hard labor, even risking her life when Madame Le Notre’s co-conspirators deliberately flood the construction site. Other influential figures welcome her uncalculating honesty as a breath of fresh air. But less time spent on court intrigue and more on the central relationship might have added heat to the romance.
While the dictates of filming a French story for an English-language international market are hard to get around, there’s sadly little sense of place here. That said, the story is engaging, the pretty locations and costumes are easy on the eyes, and the cast capable if rarely required to do much — including Stanley Tucci, queening it up as the king’s foppish brother. Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) delivers the requisite melancholy hunk with minimal nuance, and Rickman trots out his familiar laconic arched-eyebrow routine. Winslet’s mix of grace, gumption and private sadness is the chief reason to keep watching, but she deserves a more dynamic film.
Production companies: Potboiler Productions, The Bureau, Lionsgate U.K., BBC Films, in association with Lipsync Productions
Cast: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory, Steven Waddington, Jennifer Ehle, Rupert Penry-Jones, Paula Paul, Danny Webb, Phyllida Law
Director: Alan Rickman
Screenwriters: Allison Deegan, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Brock
Producers: Gail Egan, Andrea Calderwood, Bertrand Faivre
Executive producers: Zygi Kamasa, Guy Avshalom, Nick Manzi, Christine Langan, Ray Cooper, Richard Wolfe, Norman Merry
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Production designer: James Merifield
Costume designer: Joan Bergin
Music: Peter Gregson
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Sales: CAA, Lionsgate International
No MPAA rating, 116 minutes
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