TORONTO – “Titanic” was a seminal moment in Kate Winslet”s career, but she made it clear even during the film's Oscar run and in the years following that it was a more grueling experience than she ever expected. In the years since she”s avoided anything that came close to those shooting conditions, when she spent weeks in water tanks and wading through water. That is until her new period drama, “A Little Chaos,” which screened for the press at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival Wednesday before its Saturday night premiere.
In the film, Winslet and her stunt person are drenched when her character tries to manually close an aqueduct from flooding a massive garden she”s been building at Versailles (yes, that Versailles). The long and the short of it is that the sequence found Winslet in a ton of water. And for her to do that, she must simply adore her co-star and director, Alan Rickman.
“Chaos” is Rickman”s second big screen directorial effort after 1997″s “The Winter”s Guest” and it finds his “Sense and Sensibility” co-star playing Sabine De Barra, a successful working woman who has been chosen to build an important garden at the new permanent residence of King Louis XIV in the 17th Century. Rickman plays the great French monarch, who, according to the movie at least, was a tremendous fan of horticulture and design. Burdened by a tragic event in her life, De Barra finds herself at odds with competing gardeners and members of Louis” court who are jealous of the attention the King has bestowed on an outsider. A protector of sorts emerges in the head landscape architect of Versailles, Andrè Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is the man who hired De Barra to build what is now known as “The Ballroom” garden. And like clockwork, a romance blooms between them.
While De Barra”s challenge is the primary storyline, Rickman and screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan take the movie through a number of unnecessary tangents that more than live up to the film”s title. For example, they spend a good deal of time exploring the King”s desire to escape his duties. It”s also very important to the filmmakers that the audience realizes how justified Le Notre is for cheating on his scheming wife (Helen McCrory).
Rickman recruits Stanley Tucci to play a major member of the court (obviously because Tucci brings instant comic relief in his sleep), but he also wants to make sure we know his character”s wife is OK with her husband having a male lover out in the open (which we are reminded of more than once). There is also a very well done but out of the blue scene where the ladies of the court reveal how down to earth they are outside of the King”s presence to an overwhelmed De Barra. And eventually, De Barra”s secret past is revealed to be much more melodramatic than it ever, ever needed to be.
As you can guess, this makes the tone of the film feel all over the place. For a few minutes you have Tucci and Rickman”s on-screen antics making the movie feel like a Meryl Streep comedy (yes, that”s a thing), and at other points Winslet”s dramatic instincts push it two degrees away from “The Reader.” Rickman and cinematographer Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) also provide a hectic look, jumping back and forth between big movie studio period piece and an interesting artistic direction that is usually reserved for the art house. Compiled over 116 minutes, it's all sorts of jarring. Shockingly, none of these issues are the film”s biggest problem. That, sadly, lies in the casting of Schoenaerts.
Let us preface this by acknowledging that the Belgian actor is a huge talent. He”s been electric in films such as “Bullhead” and “Rust & Bone” and was one of the only reasons to sit through Guillaume Canet”s “Blood Ties.” Unfortunately, “A Little Chaos” is not his finest hour, but it”s not entirely his fault. First off, Schoenaerts and Winslet have almost zero chemistry on screen. There are no sparks between them no matter how hard the actors try. Their pairing is a total bust. Worse, because 90% of the cast is British playing French and speaking English, Schoenaerts” continental European background makes him seem like a fish out of water (and he's from Belgium). You could argue if he”d played a similar role in Sofia Coppola”s Versailles-set drama “Marie Antoinette,” at least that cast was so diverse he”d fit in more. In this case, Schoenaerts' presence seems as though he showed up wearing a Halloween costume at a masquerade ball.
In theory, “Chaos” should live and die on Winslet”s performance, but the direction is so all over the place you just have to give her credit for trying. She puts more effort into giving De Barra a true dramatic arc than some of her peers would (you could see a number of Hollywood actresses easily sleepwalking through a film like this). What makes it more eyebrow raising is that Winslet has usually had good taste in the projects she”s chosen. Sure, there are paycheck moments like “The Holiday” and “Divergent,” but, at worst, her indie choices are challenging. “Chaos” is certainly not that.
All serious criticisms aside, “A Little Chaos” earns one compliment, but it's unfortunately a backhanded one: it”s watchable. This is a film that is just entertaining enough to watch a nice chunk of on pay cable or on a transatlantic flight. Frankly, there are worse fates.