A Little Chaos is a film about gardening. Or it would be if it were any good. Set in Louis XIV’s France, Kate Winslet plays Sabine de Barra, a fictional and supposedly visionary gardener employed to bring a new aesthetic to the gardens of Versailles by the master of the king’s shrubs. Alan Rickman directs and, rather than focus on the potentially fertile ground of gardening for plot, metaphor and striking visuals, takes cinematic weed-killer to everything in his camera’s sightline.
The story of Madame de Barra’s construction of an elaborate fountain is kiboshed from the start, as we are given hardly a glimpse of the ordered gardens that she is a bringing “a little chaos” to. At one point she displays her genius by tampering very slightly with a collection of precisely-positioned pots. But that supposedly monumental moment is just about all the chaos we get as the gardening swiftly becomes a thinly sketched backdrop to a dull love story involving de Barra and her boss, André le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts).
The acting, Winslet aside, is pretty poor. Rickman hardly registers as Louis, Schoenaerts is more wooden than the Versailles trees and Helen McCrory and Stanley Tucci’s performances as le Nôtre’s scorned wife and a camp courtier respectively are idiotically cartoonish. Rupert Penry-Jones, meanwhile, pops up as the Marquis d’Exposition (or something similar) to explain clunkily exactly who everyone is.
Towards the end, the focus returns to the unveiling of Madame de Barra’s corner of the king’s gardens. With the fountain cascading and the characters dancing a jig, it’s meant to be a heartwarming finale. It’s not. In the end, A Little Chaos resembles an episode of Grand Designs that has travelled back in time and put on a stupid wig.
The film’s one redeeming feature is that the characters, who all speak English, don’t put on ’Allo ’Allo!-style French accents. Child 44, unfortunately, fails to avoid making a similar mistake. This adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s thriller set in Stalin-era Russia has its cast speak English with ludicrous Russian intonations – leading man Tom Hardy plays a vicious Communist enforcer who ends up sounding a bit like Borat.
Despite that, and the fact that we are expected to believe Hardy’s Leo Demidov is a Stalinist thug with a sentimental streak, this tale of brutality, paranoia and the hunt for a child killer is not a total disaster. The evocation of the savagery of 1950s Russia is spot on and Hardy, despite everything, is very good in the lead role. There is also solid support from Paddy Considine, Gary Oldman and Noomi Rapace. But the serial killer storyline, the film’s key element, wraps up far too easily and fails to properly enthral.
A Little Chaos (12) 1 star
Child 44 (15) 3 stars
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/4/15).