So, Alan Rickman, what did you know about Louis XIV of France before playing him and directing a movie about the creation of a verdant outdoor ballroom in the gardens of Versailles Palace?
“Wigs,” the director of “A Little Chaos” purrs. “‘The Sun King.’ EXTRAVAGANT. And a great patron of the arts!”
Rickman got a crash course in The Sun King, who reigned over France for 54 years. France became the envy of Europe, as he nurtured or protected great writers such as Moliere and artists in every medium from architecture to furniture and textiles.
“A lot of weird people got some encouragement, thanks to him,” Rickman says.
Including, his fictional film suggests, a widowed gardener and landscaper, played by Kate Winslet. In “A Little Chaos” she is commissioned by the royal gardener (Matthias Schoenaerts of “Far From the Madding Crowd”) to stir up the nature he and his peers were determined to master, manipulate and put into some sort of order.
“I love this metaphor of a balance between order and chaos, and illustrating that through the garden,” says Rickman, who tweaked Alison Deegan’s fanciful script to emphasize that. “You can’t have one without the other in nature.”
The two gardeners are thrown together in this epic undertaking, and love story develops.
And Rickman “judiciously injects himself (in) whenever it feels as if the film is become a little too set in its ways,” notes Leigh Paatsch of Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper.
“To me, Louis XIV is the chaotic element here,” Rickman explains. “He asks his gardener to build this perfect Eden in the worst place he could have picked — a mosquito-ridden swamp. It’s genius, but madness, to put a garden there.”
As a performer, Rickman wanted to flip the image of the god-like absolute monarch and show his human side, “the man beneath the wig.”
He manages that in the film’s opening scene, as he explains the duties of a monarch to his children.
“That actually was a scene that came about thanks to economics. Louis was to make a speech to a few hundred courtiers in a ballroom. And I said to (screenwriter) Alison, ‘We can’t afford that. How about, he’s rehearsing it with his kids?’ She went away and wrote it.”
That’s a reminder that “Chaos” is an opulent period piece shot on a budget. The actor frets that his investors insisted he act in “Chaos,” not because he was perfect for the part, but because they figured he’ll never be short of cash, thanks to his Harry Potter haul. He was Severus Snape, who towers and glowers over the franchise, start to finish.
“The investors figure you don’t need to be paid to act in a movie you’re directing,” he says, laughing.
Is he good in “A Little Chaos”? He is, with Alastair Harkness of The Scotsman newspaper noting that “It’s disappointing to discover he’s not the main player” after that opening scene, and Peter Bradshaw of Britain’s Guardian newspaper suggesting that “He almost pulls off the curious trick of upstaging his own movie.”
At 69, Rickman manages a film or two a year. He plays a general in “Eye in the Sky,” a drone warfare drama starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Barkhad Abdirahman, is due out next. While there was a period, after “Die Hard,” when he could have dined out on plummy-voiced screen villains forever, that wasn’t the path Rickman chose.
“It was great to be asked to sing in ‘Sweeney Todd.’ It’s exciting to be asked to do the comedy one gets to do in a ‘Galaxy Quest.’ You have to keep yourself interested and surprised.
“In this work, you are so dependent on other people’s imagination. So you never lay down rules for what you’re looking for. You always hope somebody will have a better idea of what you should be doing than you do. That’s my hope, anyway.”
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