You might expect a movie called A Little Chaos to be a bit less austere. Alan Rickman’s first film since 1997 (and his second ever) is a rigid costume drama that doesn’t even have the luxury of complete historical accuracy. It’s a film about artists and their visionary design aspirations, but the screenplay co-written by Rickman and first-timers Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan is more concerned with the coquettish melodramas of etiquette in the King’s court.
A Little Chaos is set in France, but the actors are mostly British. The dialogue is spoken in English, and the whole affair is far too posh and stuffy to have any of the romantic allure that would make it perfectly French.
Set in the 17th Century, Rickman plays King Louis XIV, the Sun King, who has commissioned the famed landscaper André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to build the sprawling gardens at the palace in Versailles. Le Nôtre is aware that anything less than perfection could result in imprisonment or beheading, so he contracts Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) to build the Rockwork Grove outdoor ballroom.
Le Nôtre describes his passion for gardening as a pursuit to recreate the Garden of Eden, and when the two first meet in a job interview he asks Sabine if she believes in “order” in gardening. Her approach invites “a little chaos” into design, but the movie hardly dwells on those aesthetic ideas, or on the beauty of classical artistry or architecture.
Rather, Rickman leans heavily on Sabine’s grieving over the loss of her child and Le Nôtre’s crumbling marriage with the member of the social elite Madame Francoise (Helen McCrory). Le Nôtre can barely hide his frustration at being with her, and she fiendishly plots to ruin Sabine’s work, but the budding relationship between Sabine and Le Nôtre is so stifled and miniscule that Francoise’s plans just smack of misguided jealousy.
Winslet is fine as Sabine, but Schoenaerts, with silly, stringy brown hair that makes him look more like a grunge star than a member of the French court, is flat and has little chemistry with his romantic partner. He plays Le Nôtre as simply distant, rather than displaying the guarded mystery he showed in the recent Far From the Madding Crowd, another period piece and costume drama.
That film, at the very least, had impressive cinematography to go along with its stuffy story. But Rickman’s film has far more magisterial set dressing, without any actual cinematic flair. Characters constantly seem to be standing in gallery poses, waiting to be painted and placed on the walls of the Louvre. One in particular is Stanley Tucci, barely in the film but around long enough to make an impression. He transplants his garish and eccentric Hunger Games character into a massive 17th century fop, as the French might say. A Little Chaos comes off as highly concerned with appearances, but it could use a bit of the artistry and sense of rebellion that concerns the film’s very premise.