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Movie Review of the Week – “A Little Chaos”

Movie Review of the Week – “A Little Chaos”
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By Alison Bailes

The trailer for Alan Rickman’s new period romance makes it look very exciting, full of juicy, corseted fun and intrigue. Alas, I wish I could say that was the case. Instead, it’s an uneven hodge-podge of historical drama and hysterical melodrama. This two-tone approach adds up to a disappointing final product with a couple of fine scenes hidden among the hokum.

Behind the camera for only the second time in his career (after 1997’s “The Winter Guest”), Rickman has chosen a strange subject matter for his sophomore effort. Ostensibly about the creation of Louis XIV’s elaborate gardens at Versailles in 1682, “A Little Chaos” is also (anachronistically) about women’s rights in the workplace ….and of course love.  Against the colorful background of the Sun King’s dream of “heaven” on Earth, Kate Winslet stars as Sabine de Barra, a fictional character created by screenwriter Alison Deegan to act as a modern entrée to this long gone world. Sabine is a sort of boho gardener, chosen against all odds to help the King’s personal landscaper André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) design the Rockwork Grove, an outdoor ballroom born of the King’s fancy.

Winslet is a magnetic screen presence in whatever she does but she cannot help save things here. Saddled with a tragic past that is hinted at in luridly edited flashbacks, Sabine never truly comes to life. Despite Winslet’s commitment, Sabine remains a vague figure, a construct whose purpose is to make a point about how hard it was for working women in the 17th century. Thrust into life among the frilly courtesans and puffed-up courtiers, Sabine’s integrity stands out like her artfully messy hair, and her modest, functional clothing. Her so-called “innovative” gardening ideas are never really shown, beyond some strung up seashells in the formal, symmetrical layout of the Grove. A third act emotional scene registers like a histrionic breakdown that is almost embarrassing to witness.

From the minute Sabine enters the same room as Le Notre, it is clear that love will win out and here is where the screenplay falters. Not only does poor Sabine have to deal with male hostility at work AND a tragic home life, but Deegan throws in a Harlequin romance, complete with conniving wives and court trickery. Schoenaerts, such a tremendously powerful and sexual actor (“Rust and Bone”, “Far from the Madding Crowd”) is reduced to a simpering wimp, barely mustering up any charisma. It’s hard to see why on earth Sabine would fancy him, other than the fact that he hired her.

Saving the day, at least in the few scenes he’s in, is Alan Rickman himself who plays Louis XIV with artful disdain and a comically cocked eyebrow.  One scene in particular, between the King and Sabine is masterful in its dialogue. One wishes that the whole film could have stayed focused on these two as they thrust and parry amid the social mores and stuffy society of the Court. Winslet and Rickman, back on screen together after 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility” seem to be having fun together at least.

 

 

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