A Little Chaos review – “uneven and unremarkable but also rather enchanting”

Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts and Helen McCrory star in Alan Rickman's second film in the director's chair

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A Little Chaos is a British costume drama about two landscape architects who fall in love. Thankfully, it isn’t as stilted or dreary as this description might suggest, as Alan Rickman ensures that his second film in the director’s chair — following The Winter Guest (1996) — is moderately charming and enjoyable. 

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The story takes place in 17th-century Paris, where King Louis XIV (played by Rickman himself) is looking to develop the gardens of Versailles. Given the importance and scale of the job, his chief designer, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), decides to recruit an assistant. Following a round of interviews, Le Notre opts for a green-fingered widow by the name of Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), despite the fact that her free-thinking style clashes with his penchant for order and symmetry. 

They end up working well together, however, and Sabine is tasked with constructing a lavish outdoor ballroom of sorts. It soon starts to take shape, and Andre is happy with the way things are going, but before long progress is hindered by one or two significant obstacles. Chief among these is Andre’s wife, Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory), who attempts to sabotage the project after sensing that there may be something between her husband and Sabine.

If there’s a criticism to be made about A Little Chaos, it’s that the central romance isn’t as engaging as it needs to be. Of course, Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts are highly talented performers — the former is an Oscar-winning actress, the latter is one of the most exciting European actors around — but there’s very little chemistry between them. Despite sharing a few fleeting moments, the necessary spark just isn’t there.

More interesting is the relationship between Andre and his wife. Though she’s been cheating on him for years, Madame Le Notre is opposed to the prospect of her husband sleeping with someone else, and she does everything in her power to stop it from happening. For this reason, McCrory is essentially the villain of the piece, and the scenes that she shares with Schoenaerts are among the film’s best from a dramatic point of view.

Such drama is complemented by lighter material throughout, although it’s worth pointing out that the two components don’t combine into a seamless whole. The film feels like a light-hearted comedy at times, but for the most part Winslet and Schoenaerts play it like a serious drama. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to hear Alan Rickman dishing out droll lines, and Stanley Tucci is typically delightful in a small role as the King’s flamboyant, bisexual brother.

Plus, there are some really enjoyable individual scenes. At one point, Sabine has an informal chat with the King after mistaking him for a gardener — which isn’t as silly as it sounds — and in this sequence Rickman strikes a great balance between drama and comedy. It’s a shame that Winslet doesn’t share a huge amount of screen time with her former Sense and Sensibility co-star (in fairness, he is busy directing the film), but she is reliably impressive in the lead role.

So what does all this add up to? Well, A Little Chaos is uneven and unremarkable, but it’s also rather enchanting and not nearly as stiff as the set-up implies. Period-piece haters won’t be converted, but there’s enough charm and corset-clad intrigue to provide diverting entertainment.

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A Little Chaos is released in UK cinemas on 17 April 2015