DIR: Alan Rickman • WRI: Jenny Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman • PRO: Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan, Bertrand Faivre • DOP: Ellen Kuras • ED: Nicolas Gaster • MUS: Peter Gregson • DES: James Merifield • CAST: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Ehle, Helen McCrory
It has taken celebrated British actor Alan Rickman eighteen years to follow up his 1997 directorial debut, the critically acclaimed The Winter Guest, adapted by Sharman Macdonald’s mood-evoking Scottish play of the same name. Such a directing hiatus by Rickman, along with an expansive acting legacy, would possibly suggest that Rickman’s passion for his craft is better served in front of the camera rather than behind it. His second outing as director, however, sees him marry the role with that of actor in A Little Chaos, a 17th century period drama, which tells the story of lowly-widowed landscape gardener, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), who secures a contract to design one of the principal gardens at The Palace of Versailles.
When King Louis XIV (Rickman) determines that The Palace of Versailles should be an enviable symbol of French imperial resplendence, he commissions an extravagant reconstruction of one of its gardens under the charge of esteemed landscape artist André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) who submits the contract out to tender amongst the elite of French artistic nobility. As the only female contender for the contract and with her artistic ideals severely conflicting with Le Notre’s vision, Sabine is confounded when she secures the coveted indenture, despite overwhelming derisive indignation from her male adversaries. As the mammoth project commences, Sabine battles gender and class barriers, professional sabotage and personal suffering to commence or even execute the majestic project, all whilst resisting a burgeoning sexual attraction to her married employer, le Notre.
With such a notable cast, steered by Winslet, who routinely favours intelligent and formidable female roles, Sabine de Barra should be another character of this ilk to augment her illustrious acting repertoire. Sabine de Barra’s awareness of her gender and class limitations and her position as a recent widow does not place her as an embittered or embattled feminist attempting to unleash feminist aspirations on her privileged masculine contemporaries. Rather she is a humble and gracious artist in her own right, in a specific era, who excels in her artistic skill and vision. Yet, feminist aspirations or otherwise, her procurement of the coveted Versailles contract, above the pestiferous elite, does place her within the feminist bracket and it is this trajectory that should drive the narrative in A Little Chaos. The plot, however, of a 17th century subaltern, transgressing the impenetrable demarcations of privileged masculine courtier positions at the French royal court and French society overall, has been abandoned in favour of a trite and predictable love story, alas making A Little Chaos quite a regrettable affair through missed opportunity and Winslet’s decision to undertake the unsatisfying role, simply baffling.
The plot and character development of Sabine de Barra, which may have initially appealed to Winslet, owing to a feminine victory over patriarchal social structures, is wholly abandoned and the narrative evolves into a love affair between a noble man and a subordinate woman, an affair that is implausible, farcical and simply too convenient. The mammoth undertaking in reconstructing the gardens, the incessant sabotage in her efforts and Sabine’s trauma at losing her husband and child in tragic circumstances are introduced but are never fully developed or psychologically explored. Undoubtedly Winslet submits her consistently dependable performance and whilst it is nuanced and evenly balanced between determined artist and vulnerable widow when necessary, there is a sense that Winslet is desperately seeking more of an acting challenge that the script does just not allow. Indeed, the role of Sabine is reminiscent of her earlier period work when she was finding her niche as a serious dramatic actress.
There are good solid turns from the supporting cast, with a great comedic turn from a giddy Jennifer Ehle as Madame De Montespan and Stanley Tucci as the mincing Philippe d’Orleans. Helen McCrory shines as the snarling, embittered wife of Le Notre and Rickman himself is perfect as the emotionally guarded but sympathetic King Louis XIV but there is a palpable sense that Rickman is yearning to get out from behind the camera and remain in front of it.
As expected from a BBC Films costume drama, the production design is exquisite, with faultless, lavish production values. However, there is a sense that the production itself is more on a par with the British aristocracy of the 17th century than the renowned wanton French court of the same era. It is all rather too restraint and temperate an affair, hugely lacking the decadence and opulence of French aristocratic life. Innuendo rather than actuality becomes a safety net on the back of a rather lacklustre plot with a distinct lack of dramatic climax. A Little Chaos is just too cosy, too safe and simply too spiritless.
A Little Chaos should be about a lowly but talented young woman’s penetration of the gender and social barriers of the 17th century but in essence it is a formulaic love story. Sabine may appear to challenge gender and class stereotypes as a non-noble woman overcoming female subordination but Sabine’s role as a woman essentially remains contained within her era and she remains defined by the men of her past, present and future. The film is a passable, if not a slightly chaotic effort by Rickman as a director and it leaves one wondering if it will be another eighteen years before he goes behind the camera again.
15A (See IFCO for details)
A Little Chaos is released 17th April 2015