Make-be­lieve ball­room

A Lit­tle Chaos, drama, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 3 chiles

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Alan Rick­man’s sec­ond di­rec­to­rial ef­fort is get­ting kicked around by crit­ics like a soc­cer ball, but you won’t get that from me. So be warned. Rick­man has taken as his sub­ject mat­ter the con­struc­tion of the el­e­gant gar­dens of Ver­sailles, and tucked away within that ex­trav­a­gance, the lit­tle fan­tasy set­ting of an out­door ball­room in a cor­ner of the de­sign. Rick­man, who makes up a part of his own ex­cel­lent cast, takes great plea­sure in the ma­te­rial and shares that plea­sure with us.

An open­ing ti­tle card reads: “There is an out­door ball­room in the gar­dens of Ver­sailles. In what fol­lows, that much at least is true.” History of this sort in­vites open sea­son for play­ful con­jec­ture, and Rick­man and his co-screen­writ­ers, Ali­son Dee­gan and Jeremy Brock, have fun with a plot de­vice that re­cruits land­scape ar­chi­tect Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) as the un­likely win­ner of a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion for the sub­con­tract­ing of the out­door ball­room. The ma­jor work is in the hands of King Louis XIV’s great land­scape ar­chi­tect, An­dré Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoe­naerts), but Louis (Rick­man) is get­ting im­pa­tient for the gar­dens at Ver­sailles to be fin­ished. He’s a fam­ily man, and he wants the chil­dren to be in the coun­try for the sum­mer.

Le Nôtre is fa­mous for his per­fectly con­trolled de­signs. De Barra fa­vors a lit­tle chaos, and her job in­ter­view with the maître goes badly; but, plots be­ing what they are, she ends up get­ting the gig af­ter all be­cause she has spirit. And that’s good, be­cause it keeps the sim­mer­ing at­trac­tion be­tween her and Le Nôtre alive, if muted. Though there is a Madame Le Nôtre (played to acid per­fec­tion by He­len McCrory), she and her hus­band have agreed upon what some three hun­dred years later would come to be known as an open mar­riage. When she sees her hus­band’s new pro­tégée she has sec­ond thoughts, but they come too late.

There are two pri­mary plot strands. One fol­lows the progress of Sabine’s hands-on work on the ball­room land­scap­ing, into which she plunges up to her gor­geous el­bows in muck. The other is her at­trac­tion to Le Nôtre, into which she fi­nally plunges as well. Of the two, the land­scap­ing is the more com­pelling pas­sion.

There are set pieces scat­tered through­out. One of the best is a scene in which Sabine comes upon the king while he is sit­ting wig­less and in shirt­sleeves among his roses, and mis­takes him for the royal horticulturalist. Winslet and Rick­man, who sparked mem­o­rable chem­istry in Sense and

Sen­si­bil­ity (1995), play it with charm. Another nice mo­ment takes place in the women’s quar­ters at the palace, where the king’s mistress, Madame de Mon­tes­pan (the lovely Jen­nifer Ehle), and other women of the court let their hair down and in­dulge in some girl talk. The scene that fol­lows, in which Sabine and the king ex­change rose metaphors, is less suc­cess­ful.

There’s sabotage, skul­dug­gery, wit, strug­gle, and even­tual tri­umph, all bathed in beauty by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ellen Kuras. That much, at least, is true. — Jonathan Richards

Mad, mad monar­chy: Alan Rick­man and Kate Winslet

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