A LITTLE CHAOS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Alan Rickman

Stars: Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Matthias Schoenaerts, Helen McCrory, Steven Waddington, Jennifer Ehle, Danny Webb, Phyllida Law.

This gorgeous looking but ultimately dull period drama is set in France in 1682. A Little Chaos is the sophomore feature for Alan Rickman (from the Harry Potter series, etc), better known as an actor with an imperious manner. His last feature as a director was the 1997 drama The Winter Guest, so it has been a long time between drinks. This is something of a labour of love for Rickman, who also co-wrote the film with first time writers Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan.

Louis XIV was moving the seat of power to Versailles, some 20km from Paris and he wanted to ensure that the gardens of the Royal palace were amongst the grandest in the world. To that end he engaged top landscape designer Andre Le Notre (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, from Bullhead, Rust And Bone, etc), who hired a number of subcontractors to transform swamp land into a luscious garden. Among them was the widowed Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a forward thinking woman with a distinctive vision, who challenged the entrenched gender and class stereotypes of the era. But she is also harbouring a dark personal past.

Impressed by her vision Le Notre hired her to design and build an outdoor ballroom and water feature as a centrepiece for the gardens. Many resented her presence though and would have loved to see her fail. Sabine found herself caught up in the politics, rumours and malicious gossip, intense rivalries and sexual politics of the royal court, but she also found herself slowly drawn into an illicit romance with the handsome Le Notre. She also earned the grudging respect and admiration of Louis XIV (Rickman).

While much of the story here is based on actual events, the character of Sabine is fictitious. Winslet brings a modern sensibility to her performance here as an unorthodox woman in a man’s domain, and she finds reserves of strength and intelligence to inform the character. Rickman puts aside his usual withering sneering and imperious mannerisms and surliness to play the regal royal here, and he brings a more introspective and reflective touch to his role. This is the first time that Winslet and Rickman have appeared together on screen since Sense And Sensibility in 1995.

There are a number of peripheral characters who also leave their mark on the material, amongst them are Helen McCrory as Le Notre’s ambitious, bitter and jealous wife who sets out to sabotage Sabine’s work, and a scenery chewing Stanley Tucci who hams it up wonderfully as Louis’ brother Philippe. Schoenarts tries hard but fails to breathe much life into the fairly bland and dull Le Notre, and unfortunately there is little chemistry between him and Winslet. Much of the characterisation is fairly thin, and many of the peripheral characters leave little impression on the material.

A Little Chaos is a lightweight enough film which is steeped in period detail, and it also explores ideas of feminism and class from a slightly modern perspective. Rickman’s languid direction and at times slow pacing makes for a rather dull film that lacks energy and will struggle to engage audiences. Nonetheless, Rickman has a superb eye for detail here, and this is a sumptuous looking period piece that brings to life Versailles and captures the spectacular, opulent beauty of the royal palace. Joan Bergin’s costume design is superb and James Merifield’s rich production design also captures the essence of Versailles circa the late 17th century. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography also enriches the film, giving it a picture postcard-like surface beauty.

★★★

 

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