Alan Rickman is proof that you’re never too old to catch your big break. Though he had been working in some capacity on various stages and the occasional TV show, he didn’t get to be truly world-famous until making his film debut in a little film called Die Hard in 1988. At the age of 42.
It’s hard to believe that Rickman’s career is almost as old as I am, because it seems like he’s been around forever. Not only has he taken on so many iconic roles, but he has that kind of seasoned and world-weary screen presence. No matter what character he plays, he always seems to radiate such confidence and wisdom. It’s like he’s seen everything, done everything, and he doesn’t have a damn thing to prove to anyone else. And what’s better, he has the acting chops (and that voice!) to back it up.
So when Rickman set out to direct and co-write a period costume drama, I of course paid attention. Rickman naturally cast himself in a supporting role, alongside such well-established actors as Kate Winslet and Stanley Tucci, underrated character actors like Helen McCrory, and hot young up-and-comers like Matthias Schoenaerts.
(Side note: It perhaps bears mentioning that Rickman’s cowriters include Jeremy Brock, who previously wrote the Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland and the “Was-that-really-a-thing?” The Eagle. Brock was also a writer on a BBC series called “Casualty,” which featured an actress named Alison Deegan, who makes her screenwriting debut here.)
Even when A Little Chaos came out to indifferent critical reception, I had to give it a look. How could this have gone wrong?
Well, let’s put it this way: For a director, Alan Rickman is one hell of an actor.
The film opens with a title card helpfully informing us that this was NOT based on a true story, and any moments of historical accuracy are purely incidental. With that out of the way, we open as King Louis XIV (Rickman) decrees that his palace at Versailles should be a place of exquisite beauty and divine perfection. Nothing short of paradise will suffice.
A landscape designer named Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) is assigned to oversee this Herculean task. But of course, the grounds are so huge that he has to divide Versailles into different outdoor projects and delegate each of them to different designers. Enter Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), who is not only a woman and a commoner but also a gardener with very little respect for classical design rudiments that have been in place since Ancient Rome.
Naturally, Sabine’s organic and disordered approach clashes at first with the more classical and disciplined style of Andre. That said, Andre was charged with the task of improving upon perfection, and he’s smart enough to realize that it takes some serious thinking outside the box to have any chance of doing that job. So he brings Sabine on board, puts her in charge of an unprecedented outdoor ballroom, and collaborates with her on the design.
Sabine and Andre of course begin crawling their way toward a love affair, but it wouldn’t be a movie if there weren’t complications. On Sabine’s end is a past tragedy involving her husband and daughter, both deceased. This is conveyed by way of hackneyed camera placements and slo-mo shots, along with visions of the daughter’s ghost that could scarcely be more cliche. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
On Andre’s side is his wife, played by Helen McCrory. The two of them are stuck together in marriage even though they quite plainly hate each other. Andre seems to treat her with a thinly-veiled disgust, while Madame Le Notre is so insanely jealous that she declares a blood feud against Sabine the very moment she first looks in Andre’s direction. And we can plainly see that she isn’t above cheating on him, either. It’s anyone’s guess what she does or why the two of them bother keeping each other around, which brings me to what may easily be the biggest problem in this movie.
At no point in any of the proceedings does it feel like anything’s at stake. The king has to be happy with the Versailles project, or else what? Sabine and Andre both have to knock this out of the park, or else what? If Andre’s marriage falls apart, well, it looks like they’d be better off, so who cares? There may be a little bit of character drama with regard to Sabine’s tragic past, especially when we finally learn the heartbreaking specifics of what happened, but that momentum is completely undone when the whole thing is resolved and swept under the rug without consequence only a few brief minutes later.
I think there’s one scene that puts it best: A royal messenger rides in to tell everyone that the queen is dead. This is followed by a group shot of the characters standing around like statues, none of whom show any reaction. And we’re right there with them, since we’ve never even met the queen.
It really, really doesn’t help that the characters are only as good as their actors. Rickman and Winslet both turn in spirited performances, and we get some nice bits of scenery-chewing from McCrory and Tucci, but all of these characters fall hopelessly flat on the page. On paper, there’s nothing to any of these characters. And what makes it even worse is that the male lead is by far the worst offender.
I get what Schoenaerts and Rickman were going for with the character, to show a good-looking romantic male lead who hides his true thoughts and emotions behind a stone-cold poker face. The problem is that Schoenaerts either couldn’t or wouldn’t bring the charisma to make that work. For whatever reason, there’s nothing going on behind the eyes and it looks like he’s sleepwalking through most of the film. This is naturally a huge problem when it comes to the central romance, since there’s never any hint of chemistry between him and Winslet. Oh, and it doesn’t help that when the two have a sex scene, they’re quite clearly having sex through the bedsheets. FAIL.
Aside from a few rare highlights — Tucci’s introductory scene, the king’s day with Sabine in the garden, and that resplendent finale all come to mind — there’s no charm or energy to be found anywhere in the proceedings. And that would be fine if there was something else to justify our attention and the film’s existence. I’ve already commented on the dull characters, so that rules out the possibility of character drama.
So maybe the film can entertain on an intellectual level, examining various themes in compelling new ways? Yeah, right. The filmmakers occasionally start to think about gender equality, class equality, art, order, chaos, marital infidelity, living with regret, and you can already begin to see the problem. The movie spreads itself too thin, trying to cover so many disparate subjects that none of them are taken in any interesting directions before they can even coalesce into something that resembles an idea.
I’ll grant that the visuals are very nicely crafted, even if the editing leaves a lot to be desired in places. Still, the outdoor shots are nothing short of sublime and the costume work is quite impressive.
Put simply, A Little Chaos had everything in place except a point. The cast, the premise, and the visuals were all on point, but the whole thing falls apart because there’s barely any passion or drive to be seen here. I have no idea what the filmmakers were trying to say or why they wanted to tell this story. The cast is clearly giving it their all, but if it wasn’t for the chance to work under Rickman’s direction, I’d have no idea why they’d want to play these characters.
I’ll say this about Alan Rickman: For a director, he’s a hell of an actor.