The dependably compelling Kate Winslet tangles with vines and branches in "A Little Chaos," getting dirt on her 17th century frocks and under her nails. As the fictional landscape designer Sabine de Barra, hired to create the Rockwork Grove amphitheater at Versailles, she stands in defiance of social and aesthetic convention even while the film itself never bursts its staid costume-drama seams.
Directed by Alan Rickman from a screenplay credited to him, Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock, the feature finds Louis XIV fast-tracking the construction of the new palace, setting lofty and vague standards for its gardens. Rickman plays the Sun King with a guarded, tender world-weariness, and he shares the movie's strongest scene with Winslet. An intimate encounter tinged with melancholy and humor, it begins when Sabine mistakes the de-wigged French monarch for a gardener.
By contrast, her interactions with André Le Nôtre, the king's master landscape architect, are frisson-free, although the colleagues are meant to be falling in love. Evincing less personality than Sabine's plants, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts appears ready for his romance-novel close-up but brings a blank discomfort to his portrayal of the historical figure.
The story comes to life only fitfully, even with — or perhaps because of — its court intrigue and supporting characters both hissable (Helen McCrory as André's wife) and flamboyant (Stanley Tucci as the king's bisexual brother). But there are striking glimpses of grit, muck and voluptuous beauty (the great Ellen Kuras handled the cinematography) and, above all, there's Winslet. While the nature-versus-order polarity that Sabine and André embody is as studied as the film's heavy overlay of modern sensibility, Sabine would have inspired a metaphysical poet or two.
"A Little Chaos."
MPAA rating: R for sexuality, brief nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Playing: In limited release.