For almost two hours, Kate Winslet struggles to erect a water feature in the 17th Century costume drama, A Little Chaos, director Alan Rickman’s underwhelming follow-up to his feature debut, The Winter Guest. I remember when Charlie Dimmock used to manage it in thirty minutes – and she appeared to take pleasure in creation.
A Little Chaos opens with the tantalising prospect of horticultural rebel Sabine (Winslet) hired to bring a modernist sensibility to the gardens of Versailles. Not that King Louis XIV (Rickman) wants modernism. He desires something to reflect the glory of France, a veritable patchwork of arrondissement that prefigures – in a way unintended by His Royal Smirkness – Paris in the 21st Century.
My first problem with A Little Chaos is that, like Suite Francaise before it, it contains no French actors. I can’t imagine a piece of English history filmed in another language (unless Welsh or Gaelic of course) so why should we think that this is a tolerable conceit? Because of course, French literature has been translated into English and French plays also – so this is natural, non? At least the actors don’t speak with a cursory suggestion of a French accent. This is not ‘Allo ‘Allo, a red hot poker for le ‘uman ear. But there is something tortuously English about the performance style. When a young woman says at one point to Sabine, ‘do you want to see my breasts’, it seems weird – wrong. After all, Sabine is not a portrait painter.
Rickman doesn’t know what sort of tone he wants to adopt. The film starts with a young child wanting to go to the toilet whilst being presented to the King in his bed chamber. Just recalling that feels utterly, utterly wrong! The film moves to somewhat safer ground when landscape gardener Sabine attends an interview with the King’s gardener, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is at least a little better than Andre the One Notre, or indeed Andre the Giant. Whilst her male competitors had two hours discussing their plans, Sabine barely gets five minutes. ‘Do you like order?’ Andre asks her. Sabine moves a pot plant on a whim. Maybe she can’t help herself.
But A Little Chaos proceeds at a generic, orderly pace. Sabine gets the job. Her workmen don’t respect her. So she gets a new lot. She and Andre develop, how you say, feelings. But Mrs Notre (Helen McCrory) who makes a point of cheating on her husband gets very upset, so much so that she engineers sabotage – which, by my calculation, is also treason.
The best bits of the film are not the tired love story – Winslet and Schoenaerts have no chemistry, I liked the latter better in Suite Francaise – but in Sabine being introduced to court in Paris, overtaken by those wishing to catch a glimpse of the King. Sabine doesn’t see him, but she does make friends and becomes an object of speculation.
This is where the film really falls down. I don’t know what has happened to Winslet as an actress, but her performance is flat and ordinary. She used to throw herself lustily into a part but here the spark has gone. I’m not convinced she is right for Sabine. Emma Thompson would have been more suited to the role. Winslet does not convey creativity. There’s no sparkle, no desire to shake up the place.
Winslet does have to do what Harrison Ford memorably called ‘physical action’ (as opposed to what, unphysical action), as Sabine struggles to stop her garden getting waterlogged. She has a backstory, about a cheating husband, a young child and a cart with a wobbly wheel, but not something that cannot be overcome with a gratuitous non-nude love scene.
Exchanges between the King and Sabine aside, A Little Chaos doesn’t overcome the diminutive in its title. Stanley Tucci livens things up as an aristocrat who steals scenes from Rickman – I could imagine the latter hissing, ‘he didn’t steal them – I gave them away.’ As far as gardening movies go, I was more impressed by Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (19892), a film more memorable than Rickman’s in every regard. If you are going to make a passion project, for goodness sake put some love into it and not just a CGI crane shot at the end.
Reviewed at Hackney Picturehouse Screen 3, Sunday 12 April 2015, 11:00 am preview screening