Since they co-starred in Sense and Sensibility twenty years ago, I’ve enjoyed imagining that despite their 29-year age difference Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet have become great friends. The very British kind, who may not meet up often, but when they do, they do with tea, biscuits and scintillating intellectual discourse and banter—oh! How chuffed they are! I’m pleased to say Winslet’s agreeing to front the Rickman-directed A Little Bit of Chaos further fuels my fantasy of this enviable friendship, as the star deigned to don a corset and haul about lumber while pregnant, all for her (presumably) good friend’s artistic vision!
There’s a lot to like in A Little Bit of Chaos, like Winslet playing a fun feminist heroine (no matter how fictional) in this historical drama. She stars as Sabine De Barra, a widowed gardener whose unconventional approach to landscaping and willingness to get her hands literally dirty lands her a coveted gig constructing a section of King Louis XIV’s extravagant gardens in Versailles.
An outsider to this world of royalty, she has collisions with seething social climbers, grinning gossips, many yes men in flowing wigs and flouncing fabrics, a gaggle of gal pals who warmly compare breasts and share stories of hidden heartbreak, and (best of all) Stanley Tucci as a fop who loves fashion and sass about all else. He’s Caesar Flickerman in 1682 Paris, and he’s delightful, whether flirting with his none-too-subtle lover or offering a sullen king (Rickman) a bit of candy. (That’s not a metaphor; it is delightful.)
Rickman was smart in much of casting, bringing light into the underwhelming screenplay with the likes of not just Winslet (who is winsome as ever) and Tucci, but also with Jennifer Ehle as a spirited but secretly wounded mistress of the king, and Paula Paul as the beard of Tucci’s Duke, a compelling and compassionate character in her own right. Plus, Rickman left a ripe role for himself, bringing a whimsical approach to his powerful royal from the first frames of him cuddling a fleet of giggling princes and princesses. Regrettably, he made a major misstep with the male lead, as Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts has the charisma of a wet matchbook here.
See, A Little Bit of Chaos is not just about an outsider’s influence on the royal court or its legendary garden. It’s also about Sabine recovering from the death of her husband and daughter through a romance with her landscaping mentor/boss André Le Notre. It’s clear the screenplay means to set them up as opposites. He holds order above all else; she likes a little chaos. She is filled with life and radiant with emotion; he has the emotional range of a rotting fish head. For all Winslet’s allure, she can’t spark with such a bland man. As central as it is, this failed romantic thread spoils much of the movie.
Still, A Little Chaos is a very pretty film, filled with elaborate costumes, and punctuated by cinematography that pauses in tableaus to take in their grandeur and absurdity. Nature itself gets similar money shots, allowing the lens to linger on tangles of vine or the outstretched limbs of a sprawling and glorious tree. Between these, its more charming cast members and the enchanting warmth it exudes, A Little Chaos would make a decent lazy Sunday watch. But the lackluster romantic lead keeps it from being much else than an also ran in Winslet’s filmography.