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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman directs a surprising period romance about gardening and gender inequality.
By Sarah Ward
April 07, 2015
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A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman directs a surprising period romance about gardening and gender inequality.
By Sarah Ward
April 07, 2015
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Can building a garden win the affection of a royal landscape architect, as well as the respect of the king? That may be the plot of A Little Chaos, but it isn't the point. There are more fascinating things afoot in this period romance.

Kate Winslet stars as Sabine De Barra, gifted with a green thumb and fingers to match, as well as the gall to want to use them. She flouts the conventions of 17-century France in other ways, too: in voicing her opinions and in shunning the tradition of manicured lawns that has seen Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) design the outdoor areas of King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman).

Yet, something about Sabine intrigues Andre, inspiring him to hire her to assist with a new project. Her vision of an alfresco addition to the Versailles palace, complete with a complex water feature, doesn't conform to expectation — just like Sabine herself.

Together, the trio treads a tentative path to a more modern way of thinking, and not just in terms of gardening. This is Sabine and Andre's tale — including the threat to their blooming bond from his promiscuous yet possessive wife (Helen McCrory) — but the king's acceptance of a landscaper outside the norm is key to the story's gentle breaking down of gender stereotypes.

Of course, in keeping with the time it depicts, the steps made are small in size, though they remain considerable in their fictionalised impact. Seeing Sabine strive and hopefully succeed always feels like the film's main goal, as paired nicely with a peek into what life was really like for women in the royal court.

Indeed, as handsomely acted as the entire affair is, and as swept up in the period details, the slow-burning love story is actually the least interesting aspect of A Little Chaos. It's not that Winslet and Schoenaerts don't sell the romance. Their performances — her sorrowful but spirited efforts especially — are among the highlights of the film. It's just that the script rightfully cares more for the characters' professional rather than personal endeavours, and so does the audience.

That would be the doing of Rickman, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the feature in addition to acting as the monarch in the middle. In his second stint as a filmmaker after 1997's The Winter Guest, the man best known to many as Harry Potter's Severus Snape is delicate and determined, two traits the movie champions.

Rickman also takes the obvious route more than once, whether lingering on the sumptuous scenery or letting Stanley Tucci turn up as yet another comic cad, once again stealing all his scenes. The formula behind the finesse is hardly surprising; the feature is called A Little Chaos, after all. The movie's title is clearly designed to reflect its heroine's wild ways within a system of order, and it does so. That it also captures the film's willingness to test boundaries within the tale itself, but not in its treatment, couldn't be more fitting.

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