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Costumes trump character in ‘A Little Chaos’

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Kate Winslet makes the most of a poorly written character in “A Little Chaos.” (Courtesy Alex Bailey/Focus Features)

Although its green-thumbed heroine embraces the beauty of asymmetry, “A Little Chaos” is a familiar, safe affair. A potentially winning story collapses into soggy melodrama in this uneven costume romp directed and cowritten by costar Alan Rickman.

The movie (Rickman’s first filmmaking project since 1997’s “The Winter Guest”) is a historical and horticultural fantasy set in 17th-century France. It reimagines the construction of the rockwork grove at Versailles via a mixture of real and fictional characters and scenarios. Kate Winslet, who appeared with Rickman in “Sense and Sensibility” 20 years ago, stars.

In 1682, King Louis XIV (Rickman) has tasked real-life architect Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) with building a garden at the Palace of Versailles. The ambitious project features an outdoor ballroom and fountains, and Andre needs a landscape artist to assist him.

He hires Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a widowed outsider, even though her forward-thinking fondness for asymmetrical designs ruffles his classical sensibilities. The two overcome their differences and become involved romantically.

Antagonists include Andre’s vindictive wife (Helen McCrory), who, despite an open-marriage arrangement, cannot tolerate her husband’s feelings for Sabine and schemes to ruin him and the garden.

Meanwhile, Sabine battles inner forces relating to grief and guilt over a personal loss.

If all you are seeking is a good-looking costume drama, the film satisfies. The frocks are exquisite and the wigs, carriages, bed-hopping and other essentials for a production set in the Sun King’s world are ample. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras shot the movie on film, for a lush effect.

Dramatically, however, the film is a hit-and-miss melange of inspired material and blown opportunities.

At times, Rickman reveals humanity behind and in front of the camera. A down-to-earth encounter between Sabine and the unwigged king, whom Sabine has mistaken for a horticulturist, is quirky and surprising.

Yet the Sabine-Andre romance, which becomes the dominant story element, never quite catches fire. Schoenaerts, a Belgian star, sizzled in “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone,” but is a stiff, dull match for Winslet’s passionate Sabine.

The garden receives little serious consideration. Instead, we get a hackneyed plot, hatched by Andre’s jealous wife, to flood the project.

Winslet is radiant, but limited by the fictional character written for her: a flawless woman whose lack of happiness is hampered by grief over a terrible loss. The tragedy is revealed in cheap flashbacks that come straight from the rulebook.

Jennifer Ehle, as one of the king’s mistresses, and Stanley Tucci, campy fun as the king’s bisexual, court-dandy brother, both are underused.

A Little Chaos
Two and a half stars
Starring: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Helen McCrory
Written by: Alison Deegan, Jeremy Brock, Alan Rickman
Directed by: Alan Rickman
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

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