A Little Chaos movie review

Featuring: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory, Jennifer Ehle
Director: Alan Rickman
Screenwriters: Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Brock
Movie website: www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/a_little_chaos
Australian release date: Thu 26 Mar

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Fine of appearance and manner, and works as an immersive cinematic visitation to 17th century Versailles, but lacks heart and dramatic clout.

French characters speaking English, as in this Brit period piece set in France circa King Louis XIV, are faintly off-putting, but it could be worse – they could be feigning French accents. Either way, surely period pieces are best performed by actors from the countries of origin. And haven’t the Brits got a rich enough history of their own to plunder?

That little bugbear out of the way, period drama devotees will enjoy being immersed in 17th century Versailles as recreated in A Little Chaos. There is the usual sartorial finery, extravagantly wigged gentlemen, elegant ladies, sumptuous furnishings and lavish accoutrements of the royal court, gorgeous scenery etc. Of course, beneath the impeccably civilised surface of this aristocratic milieu a cauldron of errant human behaviour and conflict bubbles away – although it ends up as a thin gruel, rather than a witches’ brew.

Centre stage is a handsome (naturally) male lead and his love interest: master landscape architect André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), charged by a demanding King Louis (Alan Rickman) with designing gardens of unequalled splendour for the Palace of Versailles, and commoner Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), remarkable for being a female in a male field, for her frankness of expression, and for her intuitive and free-flowing designs that seek to enhance and complement nature, rather than tame it. In this, she and André are conceptual opposites; his designs are all about imposing order and symmetry. He hires her as his landscaping assistant nevertheless, having appraised her delightful courtyard garden (and ample cleavage) during a visit to her home.

Add to the mix André’s bitchy, vengeful and sexually voracious wife Françoise (Helen McCrory), who is jealous of Sabine and intent on sabotaging her Versailles landscaping gig, King Louis taking a shine to Sabine that may just have a glint of desire about it, and Sabine’s tragic family past that threatens to unravel her, and there is dramatic/romantic potential aplenty.

Unfortunately, it is not realised. This is not the fault of the performers, who are mostly excellent, as is the dialogue, which is delivered with panache. The problem is the lack of chemistry between the two leads. Sure, they are a fine-looking pair, but their failure to set off sparks in each other is not down to the physical – the fault lies with the characterisation.

For all his Mills and Boon good looks (the only missing feature is a fetching facial scar), André is a dull, mopey specimen, well-spoken but measured and humourless, professionally accomplished but safe and unadventurous, dead at the centre. Sabine, by contrast, is gutsy and animated, unconventional in her thinking and art, and fearlessly opinionated, even to the King. It is difficult to accept that a feisty maverick like her should share a Grand Passion with a cheerless pretty boy like André.

The failure of the leads to ignite each other also partly accounts for the emotional flatness of the work. It is a challenge to care much about their budding relationship, but the apathy extends beyond that, as does its cause. When the details of Sabine’s family tragedy are finally revealed, for example, it should be lump-in-the-throat material, but it’s not. Her past family life is only hinted at until the big reveal, and the fate of its constituents matters little to an audience so unfamiliar with them. This is as much a function of the film’s narrative structure, then, as the incompatibility of personality and spirit of the leads.

The parting impression is that A Little Chaos – like the male lead – is fine of appearance and manner, but lacks heart and dramatic clout.

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