Dangerous Liaisons meets Gardeners' World is the best way to describe Alan Rickman's sweet, if predictable, new film A Little Chaos, which tells the tale of a female landscape gardener tasked with designing and constructing the gardens of the Palace of Versailles.
I went to see a preview screening last night, enticed by the prospect of watching Rickman's second venture into the director's chair and by the decent cast. It was pleasant enough and frankly, I could listen to Rickman, who also appeared as King Louis XIV, reading a seed catalogue for 117 minutes, but the lack of conflict and dramatic tension made the first half of the film in particular drag. The garden was lacking plot, if you will.
As the film opens, Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is hired ahead of several male colleagues to help the king's Executive Director of Garden Services, André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to create and realise the centrepiece of the gardens of the king's newest and grandest palace. You think she isn't going to get the job, but she does, and then you think she's going to have a hard time of it, but then she doesn't. The jolly king hints that Le Notre — and thus Sabine — will be in trouble if he doesn't like the finished product, but Rickman's Louis XIV is so much more avuncular than Damian Lewis's Henry VIII, say, that it's hard to believe him.
Meanwhile, Sabine is haunted by ghosts from her past. She refuses to talk about the death of her husband and young daughter or to move on, but she begins to feel a connection with Le Notre, much to the dislike of his self-involved wife (Helen McCrory), who isn't above going all Marquise de Merteuil on this manual-labouring interloper, who has managed to worm her way into high society, charming even the king.
Eh, bien, continuons... A Little Chaos makes for pleasant enough viewing but it could have been a much bolder, more interesting story, focusing on the challenges of a strong woman making her way in a rare profession for her gender for the time. There are a few chuckle-worthy lines — most of them from Rickman himself or from Stanley Tucci, who plays the Duc d'Orléans and who doesn't get nearly enough screen time — and the film even opens with a fart joke. But it's almost as though Rickman can't decide whether he wants to create a light-hearted wigs-and-wags romance, or a more serious drama, and he doesn't really succeed at either. It doesn't help that Winslet and the usually excellent Schoenaerts seemed to be phoning home their performances and were really just rather wet. Ultimately, the film is more of a jolly afternoon stroll along the Seine than a son et lumière extravaganza.