Sabine de Barra (Winslet) is a young widow scraping a living as a landscape gardener, who is hired by the king’s principal gardener and designer André Le Nôtre (Schoenaerts) to help out with the building of the grandiose gardens of Versailles. Her job is to turn a wodge of swampland into a grandiose outdoor ballroom with fountains. In the course of her Herculean task, a romance develops between her and her boss André and Sabine comes to terms with the tragedy in her past.
This is a very good looking film awash with sumptuous period costumes and wigs and very nicely acted. The ever reliable Winslet, called on to look worried and scruffy through most of the film, turns in a good performance, Schoenaerts is suitably hunky though a bit dull and director Rickman playing the king adds a nice touch of drollery to the proceedings, as in his remark when moving the whole court from Paris to Versailles – “I felt I’d never get the builders out unless I moved in”. There’s also efficient support from Helen McCrory as André’s superbitch wife, Steve Waddington as Sabine’s loyal foreman on the building site and Stanley Tucci as Louis’s camp brother Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, whose understanding wife (Paula Paul) is perfectly cool about her husband’s gay side.
The problem is the unconvincing nature of writer Alison Deegan’s fictional take on historical fact, which Rickman himself admits is “history seen through skewed eyes”. I’ve no quibble with using history to point out that there have always been strong and talented women, even when social mores kept them in their place but the story has to be made believable and despite Winslet’s best efforts, this tale of Sabine, a woman making her mark in a man’s world, is but a feminist fairy tale. The sight of Sabine battling through the mud of the building site in a cumbersome ankle length skirt is also a bit daft. Why not go the whole fictional hog and give the poor woman breeches? Or even have her disguised as a man in order to get the job, which had she existed she might well have had to do? The girly club at court, led by the king’s mistress Madame De Montespan (Jennifer Ehle), where the women admire each other’s breasts, although amusing, is a somewhat whacky import from women’s lib self-awareness groups of the eighties, while the eventual romance between Sabine and André has more than a touch of Mills and Boon.
The DVD extras include a short “making of” documentary, some deleted scenes and interviews with Rickman and other members of the cast. It would have been interesting to have had a piece with Deegan, explaining her thinking in the creation of this entertaining but so unlikely tale.
Review by Carol Allen
[SRA value=”3″ type=”BIG”]
A Little Chaos is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 24 August