RIP Alan Rickman. If he was not already a national institution by the time he died, he would certainly have become one in time by virtue of effortless virtuosity allowing him to switch between screen villains and likeable heroes with no apparent effort. But there was so much more to the man, not least an almost subliminal career as movie director. In 1997 he directed, acted in and co-wrote the well-received and beautifully crafted The Winter Guest, but did not repeat the experience until A Little Chaos in 2014, based on an idea by co-writer Alison Deegan.
Of Rickman the director, more anon, but the film opens with Rickman the actor showing precisely why he earned much love and affection. He is playing Louis XIV, the Sun King no less, and applies to the role the perfect air of aloof regality before even opening his mouth, all the better to sound more effective later when in an off-the-record conversation with unorthodox gardener Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) he can thaw and reveal shades of humanity previously only hinted at.
Rickman’s royal measures each word and speaks only those once they have been weighed, evaluated and their impact on the genteel but formalised rituals of court fully processed. Nowhere is this more effective than later where Mme de Barra presents the widowed King with a rose, prompting a daring exchange laden with subtext and hinting flirtatiously at deeper emotions but never daring to break out into real life romance. After all, the king is promised to another and Mme de Barra is not of noble birth. It simply would not be the done thing!
Luckily for Rickman, he also surrounds himself with fine actors from at least three countries, adding to the talents of Winslet those of Matthias Schoenaerts and the indomitable Stanley Tucci, who I am reliably informed lives in London these days, Phyllida Law, Jennifer Ehle and many more. What attracted such fine actors to Rickman’s project, other than being Rickman’s mates?
For one thing, this is a charming and beautifully realised little period drama, not your standard theme. Rickman, being an actor gives his cast leeway to show what they can do. Tucci responds by lacing his character, Duke Philippe of Orléans (later Philippe I) with some flamboyant braggadocio, where Schoenaerts gives André le Nôtre, landscape architect responsible for the gardens at King’s new home Versailles, with more shade and depth to match his authority, and Winslet shows a degree of humility to match her pride in the job.
The effect looks, like Rickman himself, effortlessly nonchalant, though this belies the effort put into achieving the effect. From Wikipedia:
According to Rickman, filming “wasn’t easy, though; throwing Kate into freezing water at 1am, the carriage crash, scenes with 80 extras, tight schedules in venues like Blenheim Palace. It’s a constant tap dance between control and freedom and of course the budget guides everything.”
Ah yes, there are a few attempts at sabotage, at least one involving water in the muddy patch into which Mme de Barra is building her new amphitheatre, but largely this is a gentle film focusing mostly on human relationships, human toil, beautiful gardens and lavish palaces.
As such, not a film of great consequence, but as a minor marvel it shows precisely how such pieces can deliver with panache and stay longer in the mind than any number of me-too action-adventure epics, not to mention a baker’s dozen period pieces conducted less with subtlety and more with swooning maidens. Not that there aren’t heaving bosoms in Rickman’s film, though thankfully only where demanded by the plot.
So to where I started. Would that Rickman were still around to make more of these small but perfectly formed genteel masterpieces, and indeed to dazzle us with his acting delights. I hope fervently that someone can slip comfortably into the Rickman shoes and show us what we’ve been missing.