I seem to recall, when reading minor Dumas novels, that there was a lot of intrigue circling around the building of various of Louis XIV’s stuff, but it was indescribably tedious and I was just waiting for the musketeers to reappear. Or a war, or something. There’s a lot of stuff going on in France under Louis XIV, so you might as well go for the political or military gusto.

This…does not. Nor does it have anything much to do with reality (which it engagingly admits in the pre-film text, which tells you that there was an outdoor ballroom at Versailles, and that, at least, is true). It is, nonetheless, charming.

André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), in defiance of probability, is young and hot in the early 1680s. He is designing some gardens at Versailles, and he needs some help. So he hires Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), whose lack of artifice is jarring to Le Nôtre’s steadfastly gallic sensibilities, but may be just the touch of genius he needs! Sabine is inexpert at court, but sweetly shepherded around by Rupert Penry-Jones, a godawful mustache, and apparently no ulterior motives, and additionally accepted with suspicious alacrity by Jennifer Ehle as Mme de Montespan. She also manages to avoid inspiring professional jealousy in her various male competitors and to have heart-to-hearts with the King (Alan Rickman) that don’t offend him or get her fired.

She also, of course, falls for Le Nôtre. And this is okay, because his wife (Helen McCrory) is just awful, and her husband is dead and was a cad.

This sounds goofy, and it is. It’s a little inexpert–tries to do too much, makes everyone too humane, overuses artsy camera angles–and not at all subtle. Sabine is a weak link, not because Winslet does anything wrong, but because her character is freighted with vastly too much anachronistic nonsense. No seedy underbelly of 17th century France is visible, no bigotry of any kind, against Huguenots, women, homosexuals, anyone who isn’t French…

So why a 4 out of 5? Charm, chiefly. Stanley Tucci as the Duc d’Orléans and Paula Paul as his wife are gems, lovable caricatures. Rickman’s Louis is perhaps how we’d like to think he was: self-aware, oddly generous, tired of the cares of state but too dutiful to shirk them. Le Nôtre is like nothing on earth, but attractively given to deadpan one-liners.

My best friend said that this movie was rough around the edges but made you wish that Alan Rickman had gotten the chance to direct more films. And it’s true.

Director: Alan Rickman
Rating: R
Length: 117 minutes
Score: 4/5

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