Alan Rickman’s second stint as director yields mixed results wrapped up in a stylish French bow, A Little Chaos (2014). It’s a beautiful effort but completely sophomoric in all its trappings. There is something inherently off-kilter while watching, the feeling that – despite an intriguing cast, gorgeous sets and an appropriately saccharine and somewhat devious plot – there’s something quite hollow here. Set within the royal strata of the court of Louis XIV (Rickman), the story follows Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), a widowed landscape architect who finds a renewed sense of purpose when she is hired to construct a new feature for the king’s garden at Versailles.
Sabine is hired by the skilled but fatigued gardener to Louis XIV, André le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who sees promise in Sabine’s unconventional approach to gardening. As the two work together on matching Louis XIV’s direction to achieve “a window to perfection” in their work, they find themselves romantically entwined, in spite of rigid class and social structures that seem intent on keeping them apart. A Little Chaos is the mildest of period dramas. The stakes are low, that characters are thinly drawn and the aesthetics are always pleasing to the eye. There are moments when this sort of breezy narrative feels better suited to television drama rather than a feature-length film.
The biggest contributor to this feeling is the script: every moment is constructed with melodrama in mind, but melodrama without any real reason to feel absorbed. At nearly every turn, audiences are forcefully reminded that their heroine is a woman without rank or title, who feels like an outsider and who is somehow “breaking with tradition” by doing the work of a man. These are the sorts of broad brush strokes painted over beloved heroines of period dramas of yore, but here the points are constantly hammered home which leaves little room for Sabine to develop and audiences to care. Moreover, the star-studded cast is done a great disservice by having to act their way through a thoroughly schmaltzy, paltry script. Every actor here – Rickman, Winslet, Schoenaerts, Stanley Tucci et al. – have proven their skill when it comes to dramas, costume and contemporary alike. Here, these titans seem to flounder with what their given, resorting to extremes (too camp, too brooding, too flighty) in order to keep the narrative going. It’s a tiring affair to witness.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem