For his second feature as director – following on from the Emma Thompson-starring The Winter Guest (1997) – Alan Rickman brings audiences the period folly A Little Chaos (2014), a film as mildly diverting and inoffensive as its title suggests. Based on a true story and adapted from ex-Casualty star Alison Deegan’s debut screenplay, the film tells of a most ostensibly mundane period of King Louis XIV’s tenure at Versailles, doing so in an entirely lightweight and likable manner that, though befitting a casual ITV costume drama, is saved by a wealth of assured hands both on and off screen. Set in 1682, Academy Award winner Kate Winslet plays widowed, green-fingered landscape designer Sabine De Barra.
Sabine is brought in by stringent garden chief André Le Nôtre (Bullhead and Rust & Bone star Matthias Schoenaerts) to transform the unexciting geometry of Versailles, the so-called heart of the King’s (Rickman stepping in front of the camera once again) dominion. Though her vivacious plans and flair for innovation betray the order Le Nôtre prizes so highly (“Even chaos is by royal demand. And chaos must adhere to budget”, he eventually concedes), Sabine gets to work on the estate; a vast undertaking that isn’t unanimously welcomed. Quickly unveiling a hive of gossip-mongers and the trenches of vanity and skulduggery that lie behind the palace walls, Sabine continues to manoeuvre through the judgements and inherent sexism many are all too willing to exude, not least from those she beat to get this most coveted of jobs.
As her relationship with Le Nôtre begins to transcend the professional, Sabine becomes plagued by a tragedy from her past that has continued to rob her of a personal life ever since, something made evermore complicated by Le Nôtre’s bitter partner (Helen McCrory). Displaying a poised understanding of and appreciation for the material and its various accoutrements, A Little Chaos is a frivolous but stable sophomore feature from Rickman, who manages to effortlessly tease out the mannered – and at times humorously modern – cadences of Deegan’s pitch perfect dialogue. Though he doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table, the consistency of tone he exhibits is vital to the leisurely plot and its various twists and turns, allowing events to gestate naturally.
Dragging A Little Chaos down, however, is the rather slimly drawn characterisation, most notably Schoenaerts’ Le Nôtre, who rarely moves beyond blankly brooding, rendering his progressive romance with Winslet a rather damp and laboured affair. She, as per usual, is on dependably steadfast form as a woman the film clearly celebrates, who rolls up her sleeves and mucks in regardless of both gender expectations and the demons that haunt her, which are clumsily explored in flashbacks. With a generous offering of pomp elsewhere, Rickman does manage to avoid the usual overstatements most actor-directors weigh their films down with, sculpting a project that’s stately and modest, but precious little besides.
This review of A Little Chaos was originally published as part of our 2014 BFI London Film Festival coverage.
Edward Frost | @Frost_Ed