Moderation is inscribed in the title and the very being of Alan Rickman’s second directorial outing. This decidedly mild comedy-drama takes Louis XIV’s grand-scale transformation of Versailles as the backdrop for a trifling period romance.
When forward-thinking landscape designer Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is appointed to add a water feature to the King’s palatial gardens, she quickly runs into a conflict of interests with project manager André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts). Where Sabine, recovering from a recent trauma, represents Gaia in all her tangled, messy glory, Le Nôtre’s a stick-in-the-mud control freak insistent nature must bend to man’s will. Opposites attracting as they do in movies, you may have some inkling of where all this is heading.
Still, we can’t accuse Rickman of false advertising: his film offers a little chaos, and possibly never enough. This story might have been reshaped as the basis of a fizzy screwball romp: traces of this version persist with the introduction of an impish Stanley Tucci as the King’s polysexual brother Philippe, and a scene in which Sabine mistakes a slumming Louis (Rickman himself) for the author of a tome on pears. Mostly, the film feels like an extension of Rickman’s established screen persona – it’s dry, somewhat cranky, and altogether low on energy.
Image: Winslet in A Little Chaos. Image Source: Phoenix
Landscape gardening may just be a subject better suited to a half-hour Monty Don vehicle than a two-hour feature: it’s such a painstaking process that screenwriter Alison Deegan has had to contrive this low-stakes romance to distract us – anything else would seem too much like hard work. Even so, it seems a travesty that Rickman and cinematographer Ellen Kuras display scant feel for landscape itself: instead, we get the same sundappled configurations of wigs and trees observed in a thousand other costume dramas.
If Winslet gamely mucks in, Schoenaerts fares less well. He certainly looks the 17th-century part, but the charisma the Belgian displayed in 2012’s Rust and Bone is nowhere to be seen: Le Nôtre is too much the staid middleman to convince as the dashing romantic hero Deegan wants to reposition him as. We’re left watching an actor-director’s Sunday project, no more pressing or demanding than a spot of weeding: it’s operating comfortably within heritage cinema’s safe zone, but at no point does Rickman succeed in making the earth move.