We missed its theatrical release but here it is, courtesy of Netflix, made all the more prescient by the recent death of its much-admired director and star, Alan Rickman. This isn’t quite Rickman’s swan song (there are a couple of films still awaiting release) but given the sadness of the situation, I only wish I could say that I liked A Little Chaos more than I actually did. It’s a polite film, handsomely mounted but lacking power and conflict and moreover, it’s a story that plays fast and loose with history.
King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) is in the process of creating the famous gardens of Versailles and the man appointed to oversee the task is master gardener, Andre Le Not (Matthias Schoenaerts). Realising that it’s too big a job for one person, he decides to apportion certain areas to other contractors and holds interviews for the posts. One applicant is the (completely fictional) Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), trying to make headway in a world dominated by men – the fact that she manages to do so, probably emphasises more than anything else that this really is fiction. Something about her captivates Le Not (it’s definitely not her skills with herbaceous borders) and he assigns her the job of creating a water garden for the King. But as she struggles to carry out the work, she meets with considerable opposition, not least from Le Not’s bitchy wife, Madame Le Not (Helen McRory) who does everything she can to scupper Sabine’s plans. All the while, Sabine is harbouring a secret – a sadness from her past that keeps returning to haunt her.
There’s not much else to report. The inherent bitchiness of Louis’s court is nicely sketched and there’s a fabulous scene where Sabine encounters the king and mistakes him for a gardener, something that Louis enjoys and encourages. It’s here where you really appreciate Rickman’s qualities as an actor, offering a sleepy, lizard like sensuality that makes the sequence a bit of a standout – but sadly there aren’t enough delights of this quality to carry the film. Winslet is terrific, but then she generally is and Schoenaerts, a Belgian playing a Frenchman, makes a decent fist of an English accent, something he’s obliged to do in order to tie in with everyone else.
And a major problem is, that when we finally see Sabine’s water garden, something she’s laboured on throughout the film, its… well, a little underwhelming.
It’s not a trial to watch – it will provide a diverting hour or so of entertainment – but one can’t help feeling that it might have been more than that. Which given recent circumstances makes the whole thing seem a trifle sad.