We’re told it’s a sin to speak ill of the dead. Unfortunately, when reviewing Alan Rickman’s 17th-century costume drama, A Little Chaos, committing such a sin might be necessary in order to convey the sheer awfulness of the late thespian’s and concomitant director’s project. Please don’t construe that my intent is to disparage Mr. Rickman in general—quite the contrary, he was one of the finest actors of our time, who handled a vast range of roles most often with the highest aplomb.
Here, unfortunately, he not only made the mistake of acting in this turgid drama but contributed as one of the co-writers to the screenplay. The story was conceived by one Allison Deegan who somehow got the idea that there was much drama in the creation of the grand gardens at Versailles during the reign of King Louis IV in France. The focus is on landscaper Monsieur André Le Nôtre who designed the gardens and enjoyed the patronage of King Louis throughout his life. Unfortunately, Le Nôtre was pushing 70 when the film’s narrative begins in 1682. Instead, Deegan transformed Le Nôtre into a stud half the real character’s age and the handsome Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts was conscripted to play opposite Kate Winslet as Sabine de Barra, an independent landscaper who is hired specifically to build a fountain surrounding a small outdoor ballroom out in the middle of nowhere.
Sabine is a completely fictional character and the idea of woman working as an independent landscaper at that time is laughable. But Rickman was delighted with the idea. As quoted by Susan King in the L.A. Times, “There would be no woman with a profession at that time,” Rickman noted, adding that he loved the idea of “putting a completely fictitious character in the middle of a known bit of history.”
Romance between Le Nôtre and Sabine is postponed after Le Nôtre’s displeasure over Sabine’s decision to place plants in the garden outside of his ordered design. The spat between the two landscapers reflects the historical conflict between order and chaos, prevalent in landscape architectural circles at the time.
The lugubrious plot continues to pitch forward and we are introduced to King Louis IV and his court. The King’s brother, Duc Philippe d’Orleans, played by Stanley Tucci, is introduced as an effeminate bon vivant-bisexual, but also married to the German Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine. Tucci’s character provides some atmosphere but does little to advance the plot.
Rickman’s King Louis IV turns out to be a rather low-key, unexciting good guy. When Sabine mistakes him for a common gardener, the King plays along and isn’t upset with her for not recognising him. He takes such a liking towards her, that she’s invited to the court at Fontainebleau.
Alex von Tunzelmann, writing in the The Guardian, notes another historical faux pas: “There is a painfully overwritten scene about aging women being like roses who lose their bloom, delivered for the benefit of Louis’s mistress Madame de Montespan (Jennifer Ehle), who is being passed over for the implicitly younger and fresher Madame de Maintenon. This is not only bad, but wrong: in real life, La Maintenon was five years older than La Montespan.”
If there’s an antagonist here, it’s Le Nôtre’s wife, Françoise, who believes in sex outside marriage but only if she’s on the receiving end. She has her Cruella de Vil moment when she visits Sabine and insists that Le Nôtre’s interest in her is only a whim. What’s more, two goons she’s hired open flood gates, destroying all of Sabine’s hard work. Le Nôtre is able to get out of the relationship with the evil Françoise, after finding a glove belonging to her at the flood site, implicating her in the dark deed. This is the dark moment at the end of the second act and we’ve waited an inordinate time to get to it.
The road back of course has to be the consummation of the love between Le Nôtre and Sabine. This in turn allows her to confront the repressed memories of the long-ago death of her husband and young daughter, killed in a carriage accident. Sabine’s project is finally completed and there’s a big celebration. Game, set, match!
There isn’t one iota of humour in A Little Chaos and the actors go about their business with grim faces. Schoenaerts has little to do as the handsome landscaper and Winslet is unconvincing as a feminist heroine who we know never existed. Rickman fares little better as a darker side is never really suggested.
Score this as a vanity project and an unfortunate swan song to a great actor’s career. A Little Chaos does have good costumes so see it for that if you must see it at all.