Films of Then and Now

Love Redeemed in a Baroque Landscape and within a Troubled Mind

Kate Winslet (right) stars as 17th-century landscape designer Sabine de Barra and Alan Rickman (left) as France’s King Louis XIV in the romantic drama “A Little Chaos.” Photo: Alex Bailey/Focus Features

A Little Chaos

Alan Rickman has had a notable film career for the last 25 years, ever since he played the Euro-snide villain in the original “Die Hard” (1989). In that span he has directed one film, “The Winter Guest,” starring Emma Thompson, in 1997. “A Little Chaos” is his second directorial effort, a careful and delicate period piece. (Opened June 26, rated “R,” runs 117 min.)

The date is 1682 and the place is the France of Louis XIV. The King (Rickman) desires new landscaping at Versailles and hires landscaper Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) for the job. He, in turn, hires as a contractor the creative but nonconformist gardener Sabine de Berra (Kate Winslet), a working widow who looks to upend standard garden traditions to create an outdoor theater-fountain on the grounds. After some difficulties she retains a competent crew headed by Duras (Steven Waddington) and earns the respect of the King’s brother, Duc Philippe d’Orleans (Stanley Tucci). She also begins to fall for Andre. 

Andre is estranged from his haughty wife, Madame Françoise (Helen McCrory), who resents Sabine and conspires to ruin her by using hirelings to completely flood her project while it’s under construction. The project is resuscitated, however, and a chance meeting of Sabine and the King at a garden-supply site bonds the monarch and the commoner together. Her relationship with the King further solidifies, her troubled past is overcome, Françoise is finally unmasked, and Sabine and Andre find love as her project reaches completion. 

This is historical fiction written by one Allison Deegan, with few pretensions to actual events (de Berra is made up). The question is whether it works as film, which it does in a conventional yet competent way, one cogently built but with few surprises. Rickman may not have flash as a director, but he knows how to work with his fellow actors. 

You must quickly get past the fact that you are in a 17th-century France peopled mostly by Brits with tidy English accents.  Overall they do a creditable job. Matthias Schoenaerts, just seen as the redoubtable Gabriel Oak in “Far from the Madding Crowd,” smolders nicely as Le Notre and shows more range and a more appropriate accent (the actor is, in fact, Belgian) than he did in the earlier film. Helen McCrory overacts as the Madame you love to hate with her supercilious manner and overweening wardrobe. A series of featured roles, with actors like Tucci, Waddington, and Jennifer Ehle, is handled adroitly. 

Rickman himself is self-deprecating in playing the King as a minor, and appropriately distant, figure. He is wholly imperious when he needs to be but also shows a human dimension when necessary. In an interview the actor found parallels with his task and the King’s: “The only way I could do it was because, in a way, he’s like a director, Louis, so you kind of keep the same expression on your face ... like a huge all-encompassing eye that sees everything.” 

Kate Winslet, meanwhile, shines brightly as the sincere Sabine. This is a woman who is both independent and a pioneer, yet Rickman imposes no facile “contemporary” sheen on the role. Winslet operates with the right amount of deference in a royal setting; while she still “knows her place” she is willing to forge a new one. Her intelligent visage and her searching eyes combine with a physical spirit (getting her hands in the dirt) that embodies her strong character. Hers is the kind of performance that Katherine Hepburn specialized in during the early 1940s. 

Winslet and Rickman especially glow in the meet/cute garden scene, a triumph of delicate fencing and the blending of sensibilities that outshines many another passage of this sumptuous movie. This duet forms the sweet center of “A Little Chaos.”  

Infinitely Polar Bear

Cam Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) is a husband and father from a wealthy but distant family who has long suffered from manic depression. “Infinitely Polar Bear” opens in 1978, just when Cam has had a manic episode that lands him in a mental hospital. His wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) and their two young daughters, Amelia and Faith (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide), must leave their house in the country and move to a depressing apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Maggie looks for work. She applies to business school and is accepted for Columbia University’s MBA program, but this means her moving to New York. She reluctantly asks Cam to become the primary caregiver for the girls while she completes her studies. Cam assumes the task, but the girls test his delicate psyche. With such stress Cam realizes that he’s in over his head but, over the course of 18 months, while Maggie earns her degree, he is gradually able to care for his bright daughters as well as for himself. 

This is a family chamber piece with autobiographical elements from the life of its writer/director, Maya Forbes, a Hollywood screenwriter directing her first film. Forbes grew up in Cambridge with a manic depressive father and a mother who went to Columbia to help provide for her family. Her story depends fundamentally on whether the interaction of the troubled father and his two sharp kids is believable. (Now at selected theaters, rated “R,” runs 88 min.)  

As it happens, Ruffalo and the girls pull off their intricate relationship with smarts and humor, as the ever-edgy dad learns better to read his girls while they gain patience with his malady. Ruffalo, one of our best character actors, is completely convincing as a manic personality, never exactly raving but ever struggling with the obsessions and ample disorder of his mind: you see where his parenting can go so wrong, yet you still root for him to succeed. Saldana is a lovely and sincere figure, though she is only a fleeting presence here. It’s the dad and his daughters who carry this heartfelt movie.

One nice biographical note: director Forbes cast her own daughter, Imogene, as the feisty Amelia, and the kid is terrific. “Polar Bear” is a family affair, indeed, since Amelia’s father, Wally Wolodarsky, is one of the movie’s producers. 

Short Take – Testament of Youth

The English keep mining their past to good effect, especially in myriad TV series. Films, of course, also reflect this passion for their history, and a recent example is “Testament of Youth” (now in area theaters), based on a celebrated World War I memoir by writer/activist Vera Brittain (Alicia Viklander). The film, directed by James Kent, is a fine recasting of Brittain’s personal saga as a well-brought-up yet independent-minded woman and her relationships with three young men, including her fiancé Kit (Roland Harrington) and beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton), who all go off starry-eyed to war. Desiring to be close to her male cohort, she leaves her studies at Oxford to work as a nurse, a choice that leads her close to the French front lines where her men are fighting.  

The film is dominated by the 26-year-old Viklander, fresh from her very different role as a robot in “Ex Machina.” The actress, a Swede, convinces completely as a post-Edwardian young woman determined to live a meaningful life and to support the ones she loves. Her standard look here is a concerned and earnest one, which makes her breaking out into the occasional smile that much more dazzling.  This is her debut in “carrying” a film, and she does it with flair. (Rated “PG-13,” runs 129 min.)   

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.  


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