TIFF Review: 'A Little Chaos'

A Little Chaos
(UK, 116 min.)
Dir. Alan Rickman, Writ. Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Brock
Starring: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory.
Programme: Galas (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Hat’s off to the Toronto International Film Festival. The TIFF folks pick a winner with their closing night selection of Alan Rickman’s latest film, A Little Chaos. This rousing comedy is one of the most pleasant surprises of the Festival. It’s an utter treat to end the fest on a high note of escapism and exuberance.

Rickman delivers a delightful comedy with A Little Chaos as Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts join him in spirited take on the revolutionary gardens at the Palais de Versailles. Winslet stars as Sabine de Barra, a headstrong gardener with an out-of-the-box approach on landscaping. Her green thumb clashes with the orderly planning of King Louis XIV (Rickman)’s chief landscape architect, André Le Notre (Schoenaerts), but Le Notre sees her as the right man for the job when her plans invite a little eclecticism to accent the opulence of Versailles. Everyone speaks English with British accents even though Versailles sits in France, but Rickman never shies away from having fun with this revisit to the past. A Little Chaos thankfully never takes itself too seriously, so audiences should permit the liveliness of film let escapism work its charm.

A Little Chaos is a bouncy comedy of manners in the vein of Tom Jones as the lavish period production accentuates the stiffness of the life at court to which Sabine is an outsider. The manners make A Little Chaos extra sexy, too, for the passion of cultivating the land and building this extravagant outdoor empire balances the masculine and the feminine as Sabine and André work in harmony. Winslet’s charming performance finds great chemistry with everyone else in the lively ensemble from Stanley Tucci as a dandy of the court to Jennifer Ehle as a subtly spirited mistress. Winslet finds her best match with Rickman, though, when Sabine unsuspectedly drops in on the King as he enjoys the decadent roses of his empire’s creation. Winslet and Rickman convey the loss their characters escape by digging in to their passions, humanizing these historical figures with their shared fondness for earthly pleasures.

Rickman crafts both a lively comedy and an exquisite period film as A Little Chaos spoofs courtly manners with jovial wordplay and manners. The costumes by Joan Bergin are gorgeous and provide fancy dressings for the comedy—Sabine sports the silliest opening-scene hat this side of Rose DeWitt Bukater—while the lively score by Peter Gregson adds to the whimsical spirit of Sabine’s tale. A Little Chaos is effervescently bubbly despite the corsets.

A Little Chaos features several dramatic turns in its 116 minute running time—the film could use a little trimming—including one enthusiastically directed sequence in which Sabine rushes to save her garden from a flood surging through a tampered aqueduct. Winslet goes in Titanic mode as Rickman plunges Sabine into an epically crafted sequence that dangles the heroine above rapid waters as she proves herself worthy of the court. The sequence shows Rickman’s adeptness at balancing the camera with his actors’ skills, although A Little Chaos is very much an actors’ picture, and the riveting flood of the scene lets the film flow nicely into unexpected dramatic turns that reveal Sabine’s fears and inadequacies that give her such fiery spirit. The latter act revelations might come a bit too late in the game, thus inviting notes of tonal chaos, but Winslet’s dramatic chops keep the film on course as Rickman gives a few close-ups in which to shine as the film crosscuts between Sabine’s memories of her lost family and her present-day grief that comes rushing out like the waters at Versailles.

Winslet’s charming performance makes A Little Chaos consistently enjoyable, but Sabine also makes the film an appropriate choice to cap off a festival that has consistently showcased strong female leads throughout the programming selections. The film puts at its core the folly of assuming women and men cannot excel at the same tasks. A Little Chaos defines Sabine by her passions, whether they be for gardening or for Le Notre, and infuses the rooms of Versailles with a modern sensibility. This delightfully bubbly escape is a refreshing comedy with which to end the Festival. It's a lot of fun.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

A Little Chaos screens:
-Saturday, Sept. 13 at 6:30 pm at the Princess of Wales
-Saturday, Sept. 13 at 8:00 pm at Roy Thomson Hall
-Sunday, Sept. 14 at 9:00 am at Scotiabank 2

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.