A Little Chaos (dir. Rickman, wr. Brock/Deegan/Rickman)
It’s worth it just for one last glimpse of Alan Rickman in full uncomfortable sneer, the pained uncle, so wounded and so wise… And it’s worth it for some other stuff too, including a Winslet somehow more mature, and some truly beautiful images from Rickman as director.
But there’s a sense that – like its late lamented director – the script of A Little Chaos could have given us so much more. Having decided for dramatic purposes to get so chaotic with the truth – in reality Le Notre the head gardener was decades older than the King, not t’other way round, and Winslet’s radical female gardener simply didn’t exist – the writers don’t take much creative advantage.
Perhaps lacking confidence in any of the strands, they try to throw in too much that remains undeveloped: the back-story of Winslet’s family is worthily sad, but neither necessary nor developed into any explanation of her relationship to natural forces; supplanted mistress Jennifer Ehle’s semi-secret court of wounded women is a surprising, haunting and beautiful moment, but basically a digression; Stanley Tucci is wasted; a couple of pat metaphors aside, the tension between order and chaos doesn’t go anywhere.
Structurally, Rickman the writer-director has made Rickman the actor part of the problem. Because from the opening scene we see the fragile warmth behind the monarchical mask – and because it’s Alan Rickman and everyone knows that Professor Snape always secretly cares – he can’t carry the kind of threat required of the capricious absolute ruler. If the King was still a distant authority, his scene with Winslet and the pear tree would be a moment of revelation and transformation; instead it’s just pleasant and a bit poignant. And by then, there’s no chance that he’s going to be anything other than indulgent of the apparent hiccough of the waterlogged garden.
There’s a similar lost opportunity around Schoenaerts. His Le Notre doesn’t develop at all. He’s a bit snooty in his first scene, but after that he’s just sort of romantically moody. The potential conflict and tension between a (much more) austere, order-obsessed Le Notre and a (more) wild and wilful Winslet is never realized. Because Madame Le Notre is such a horror, and promiscuous, and already signed up to an open relationship, there’s no practical or moral obstacle to Schoenaerts and Winslet leaping into the shrubbery. There’s no tension, and no sense of achievement.
(And they don’t even leap into the shrubbery. All that mud, and all that luscious fruit, and they finally get it on indoors, which seems rather a waste – as well as a defusing of the little passion there was.)
Pruned (sorry) and chopped around a bit, the script would have more energy and grip. If Schoenaerts was really uncomfortable about Winslet’s garden planning, and about the idea of betraying his wife, Winslet and the story would have something to aim at and work on. If Rickman seemed capable of ruining lives by banishment from employment in his Eden, the risks and tensions would have consequences and impact. Say Schoenaerts is still uncertain, about the funky horticulture and about Winslet, when the more perceptive Mrs Le Notre ruins the garden to forestall the threat of losing her husband; Schoenaerts and Winslet then have their moment of near-death near-passion in the tempest; Jennifer Ehle’s boudoir then becomes a place of real refuge, from a very grumpy King and from the unknown result of the passion; the nicely-staged Mexican stand-off between the wounded ladies and the King’s posse can then be a moment of real resolution – what if that’s the moment when she realizes that the King who could be about to ruin her is the same mysterious figure she met under the pear tree? – when Winslet’s spirit and argument must convince the King, and when Schoenaerts must decide to follow his heart and speak up for her.
Instead Rickman denies himself a fitting farewell, and we’re left wanting what might have been.