“A Little Chaos” is all too tidy as it imposes a predictable, pat modern sensibility on a most unconvincing depiction of late 17th-century French aristocratic life, with Kate Winslet starring as a green-thumbed widow hired to design part of the gardens at Versailles for Alan Rickman’s Louis XIV. Rickman’s first directorial effort since 1997’s “The Winter Guest” is a formulaic, broadly drawn historical fiction that won’t be an awards magnet, but could gain commercial traction amongst older audiences as costume-pic comfort food.
Pic takes place in 1682, when the Sun King is in the process of moving his court whole from Paris to the long-in-progress Versailles. He decrees of its gardens, “Heaven shall be here,” and it is up to chief landscape architect Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to create that “window to perfection” — swiftly and on budget, or else. Interviewing numerous candidates to execute a Rockwork Garden that will encompass an outdoor ballroom and fountain, he surprisingly settles on little-known Sabine de Barra (Winslet), whose ideas are unorthodox and who’s a woman, besides.
Despite their initial friction, they slowly warm toward one another, helped along by Louis’ growing antipathy toward a scheming, faithless wife (Helen McCrory). But court intrigue extends even here, leaving both of them prey to gossip, backstabbing and even outright sabotage, providing an action-flood climax just as forced as the flashbacks explaining Mme. de Barra’s inner pain (she lost a child, natch), and the sometimes laughably hokey progress of her romance with Le Notre.
The one scene here that really works, calculated though it may be, is an improbable but charming extended accidental meeting between heroine and the King, whom she initially mistakes for a fellow gardener when she encounters him enjoying a rare solitary stroll. But too often, helmer Rickman galumphs through what’s meant to be a witty romp, underlining the script’s most obvious, rigged qualities. This feels like the most thoroughly English “French” court ever, and some sequences are particularly heavy-handed in imposing a modern sensibility on the era — as when Sabine meets the ladies of the court and suddenly they’re all having a sort of 12-step grief counseling session.
Winslet is appealing, of course, but one can’t help thinking she was more interesting when this spunky-female-entrepreneur-in-a-man’s-world role was called Mildred Pierce. The lamentably wooden Schoenaerts aside, no one else here is much challenged either, with competent work from expert thesps in one-dimensional support roles. Offering ham amid the brie are Rickman and in particular Stanley Tucci, who camps it up mercilessly as the King’s bisexual brother, smirking his way through stale bons mots.
All this is diverting enough, in a middlebrow-upmarket-crowdpleaser sort of way, duly supported by the usual costume-pic pleasures of handsome locations and fancy dress. But the film’s pretensions toward depth are seen through all too easily. Despite all the posturing, it doesn’t even take de Barra seriously enough as a working professional and innovator to really make the Rockwork Garden’s realization a detailed central focus. It’s also a bit disconcerting that after all the pic’s swooning over flora, in the end Mme. de Barra’s creation really has very little to do with gardening per se, being more a feat of architecture and engineering.
Design elements contributions run the gamut, from Joan Bergin’s enjoyable (if not always period-convincing) costumes to Peter Gregson’s cliched, saccharine score. Ellen Kuras’ 35mm lensing goes for something a tad grittier than a conventional “sumptuous” look, an approach that seems somewhat off for this artificial, escapist material. Tech package is sound.