With a 17 year gap between this and his directorial debut The Winter Guest, Alan Rickman makes a welcome return behind the camera (and sporadic appearances in front of it) for this involving tale of the personal and professional struggles encountered by a gardener offered the highly sought-after role of landscaper in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Hardly pulse-quickening material, it’s safe to say Rickman hasn’t reinvented the cinematic wheel here. However, it’s an amiable enough yarn greatly enlivened by a fine central performance from Kate Winslet, whose spirited and dignified turn recalls her earlier, celebrated work within the same genre. She helps turn what could easily have been BBC Sunday evening fodder (it’s partly funded by the broadcaster) into a satisfying cinematic experience.

Winslet’s character Madame Sabine De Barra is an unlikely choice to help create the visual landscape for the fastidious vision of reigning monarch Louis XIV (Rickman) from both a hierarchical perspective and a feminine one. Hired by famous architect Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) a mutual attraction forms almost immediately between the pair, but De Barra is dedicated to concentrating on realising her artistic vision despite the numerous obstacles she’s presented with. As she battles her own potentially debilitating demons, the cruel weather and acts of sabotage from her resentful competitors, matters are made worst by the scheming nature of her potential love interest’s estranged but deeply jealous wife, Madame Le Nôtre (played with simmering indignation by the always great Helen McCrory).

The more obvious strengths of the film have been gleaned from Rickman’s rich theatrical training and experience. His ability at bringing out the very best in his commanding cast really shines through. As mentioned, Winslet is very much at the top of her game here, but the supporting players are equally as memorable. Schoenaerts one again highlighting his chameleon-like screen ability, moving from that shifty, rat-faced lowlife seen in The Drop earlier this year, to De Barra’s ruggedly handsome employer, complete with a manly flowing mane of hair. The transformation is pretty extraordinary. Stanley Tucci crops up intermittently as the catty Duke D’Orleans, exhibiting just the right amount of OTT camp and threatening to steal those scenes he appears in.

Rickman shows real confidence with being able to sit back and let his scenes really breathe, allowing them to be informed and dictated by his performers. He also has an ace up his sleeve in the form of cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Her crisp and earthy visual palette brings both the palatial interiors and surrounding mud-sodden work-in-progress grounds to vivid life. If the film is a little overlong and starts to flag during the strained flashbacks to De Barra’s backstory, A Little Chaos remains an engaging period piece which offers a welcome bit of refinement and elegance in the cinema before the summer box-office juggernauts come crashing in. Here’s hoping Rickman doesn’t wait as long again to get back into the director’s chair.

A Little Chaos
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Mild-mannered civilian by day, passionate cinephile and dedicated blogger at night, my obsession began with seeing the image of Luke staring wistfully at the two stars of Tatooine, and 30-plus years later, that love have never wavered.