Monday, August 17, 2015

AT WORDSPOINT

Onwumere and Smolin: lie coach
If you're one of those slightly benighted folks who think Santa Cruz Shakespeare would be so much fun, except for, you know, all that Shakespeare, then the current SCS production of The Liar is for you.

On the other hand, if you can't get enough of Shakespearean-style wit and wordplay, then The Liar is for you. In fact, if you're breathing, The Liar is for you.

Yes, it's a play you've never heard of, based on a French farce from (eek) 1643. Yes, the entire play is in verse. But this outrageously clever 2010 update by American playwright David Ives uses modern idioms and vernacular throughout (references to Twitter, etc.), to make sure that everyone gets all the jokes.

The farcical plot revolves around Dorante (Brian Smolin), a young man from the provinces on his first day in Paris who's quick to embroider the truth for the sake of expedience. He has no malicious intent; rather, say, he can't be bothered with the boring (or inconvenient) truth when a good lie, ingeniously crafted on the spot, is so much more satisfying.

Or, as Dorante puts it, in one of Ives' slyest lines, "the unimagined life is not worth living!"

Jolene and Cavett, with Smolin: effortlessly fun
 In short order, Dorante hires a manservant, Cliton (Toby Onwumere), unable to speak anything but the truth, falls instantly in love with one of two ladies (but mixes up their names), weasels out of a marriage plot arranged by his father, and fights a hilarious duel of words (which he narrates like an ESPN play-by-play), swords undrawn.

Did I mention the twin serving wenches (one lusty, one pious)? As soon as Dorante boasts to Cliton about his "Memory—keystone of the master liar!" you know he's heading for trouble.

A show that depends so completely on verbal dexterity needs an adroit cast, and SCS has put together an exceptional one. Toby Onwumere gets things off to a rollicking start before the show begins, as Cliton, wandering through the audience with a "Man for Hire" sign, offering to juggle fruit, sing songs or recite for pay. Onwumere is so powerful as the tragic but fierce Macduff in this season's production of Macbeth, it's great to see him shift gears in such a boisterously comic role.

Brian Smolin's Dorante is an utterly charming scapegrace, delighting himself (and us) with his extravagant fabrications, soaring to ever new heights on the addictive helium of his own tall tales. Smolin delivers his lines with clarity, precision, and impish glee, to match the flamboyant grace with which he prowls the stage; he's effortlessly fun in a demanding role.

Smolin and Parret: must be the lusty twin
The ladies, sassy Clarice (Mary Cavett) and quiet, but smoldering Lucrece (Sierra Jolene), keep the action hopping along, putting their suitors through their paces. Darek Riley scores as Alcippe, Clarice's other suitor (and Dorante's dueling/sparring partner in that great, er, wordfight scene). Allen Darby makes a droll impression as his friend, Philiste, and Kurt Meeker is the imposing voice of authority as Dorante's father.

Melina Parret is terrific fun as both twin servants, Isabelle and Sabine. SCS audiences may (or may not) recognize her from her other role this season as Lady Macbeth.

David Mickeklsen's vivid costumes vaguely recall the Musketeer era of the original French play (with a few cartoony/Commedia del'Arte flourishes), and Art Manke's smart direction is frisky, but never so frantic that we can't appreciate the jokes or the splendid performances.

This is probably the funniest play I've seen in the Glen since Danny Scheie's original production of A Comedy of Errors, back in the Stone Age. It's what live theatre is all about, and it only plays four more times through August 29, so get your tickets now.

Why are you still sitting there?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

THANE OF THRONES

Dressed to thrill: Parret & Pickering
William Shakespeare might as well have written Macbeth for the Festival Glen at UCSC. Who can resist witches, ghosts, blood and mayhem under the towering redwoods at night, under a canopy of stars?

The new Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of the play could not be any more atmospheric. Director Kirsten Brandt's staging of the durable drama of ambition, murder, and revenge in ancient Scotland comes roaring out of the trees and down the aisles, across Nina Ball's splendid stage and the ramparts above.

Rodolfo Ortega's sweeping, Game Of Thrones-like music soars over all, while the sound and lighting designs of Ortega and Kurt Landisman keeps thunder and lightning rumbling ominously through the trees between scenes. (Although, perhaps not as ominously as the real-life lightning storm that blew over the Glen Thursday night, canceling the last preview performance.)

B. Modern's costumes are a Shakespeare fangirl's dream of kilts, tartans, leather leggings, and velvet medieval gowns worked in gold.
Wohlrabe as Banquo's ghost

The show begins with a bang: the three shrieking witches are hauled down the hill and onto the stage by soldiers, who denounce them with Biblical quotes ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!"), and lock them into horned, cage-like headdresses.

This sets up the conflict between mysterious female energy and male military power when the witches are encountered by the troops of old King Duncan (Kurt Meeker), returning from a victory at the front.

Speaking in riddles, the witches prophesy that Macbeth (Steve Pickering), Thane of Glamis, will be king, and that his comrade-in-arms and fellow thane and general, Banquo, will found a dynasty of kings. Banquo is usually a male role, but in this gender-bending season, the general is a woman.

Greta Wohlrabe looks great in the part, strutting around like Brienne of Tarth, but since Banquo functions as the conscience of the play, the moral force that Macbeth abandons for glory, it's too bad she and Macbeth don't establish a deeper camaraderie from the outset.

Melinda Parret is a bold and effective Lady Macbeth. She starts plotting the minute she hears about the prophecy, calling on the gods and spirits to harden her natural female tendency toward mercy to do away with the old king while he sleeps under her roof, so Macbeth can ascend to the throne. Her murderous plan shocks her husband, at first, but ultimately seals both their dooms.

There are two traits anyone playing Macbeth needs—fire and tragedy. But Pickering seems a little complacent in the role. He never quite musters the intensity of a good man fatally tempted to hazard all for the sake of ambition. As a result, his waffling over his part in the bloody deed doesn't have the weight of a moral crisis, of a man grappling with the destruction of his own soul. He just seems wishy-washy.

However, Toby Onwumere (above) has fire to burn as Macduff, Thane of Fife, onetime ally and ultimate adversary to Macbeth. The production jolts to life whenever he's onstage. Brian Smolin (such a hit in this season's hilarious farce, The Liar), is very funny as the cranky Porter of the castle in the play's one comic scene.

And the witches (Patty Gallagher, Suzanne Sturn, and Mary Cavett, right) are pretty fabulous, draped in rags and flotsam and moondust, their voices amped up with an eerie reverb effect that echoes through the trees.

The entity formerly known as Shakespeare Santa Cruz is playing the last four productions it will ever give in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen this month. (The word is, the company will relocate to Delaveaga Park for the 2016 season.)

Since this production makes such excellent use of the Glen in all its wild, spooky glory, it serves as a fitting way for fans to bid a fond adieu to this marvelous performance space.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

4 JACKS AND A JAMIE

"You can't spit on board a ship and not hit eight fellows called 'Jack.'"

So says the pirate hero of my first swashbuckling novel The Witch From The Sea. My Jack chooses the name for anonymity in his dubious trade, as he explains to my heroine, runaway and accidental pirate-in-training Tory Lightfoot.

In swashbuckling fiction, on land as well as sea, characters named Jack seem to have all the fun. (Unless they're named James, like my other pirate hero, James Hook.) I'm partial to my Jack, of course, but since it's summer reading season, here are some of my other favorite literary rakes and rogues named Jack, with one more Jamie thrown in. Enjoy!

MASTER AND COMMANDER  The first volume in Patrick O'Brian's beloved 20-volume adventure series introduces Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, and his best friend and shipmate, Dr. Stephen Maturin, Irish-Catalan surgeon, naturalist, and spy.

Called "Lucky Jack" for his genius in out-maneuvering enemy ships and earning prize money (yet all at sea in attempting to manage his financial and social affairs on dry land), big, bluff, hearty Jack and small, dark, wry, and learned Stephen sail all the world's oceans throughout the Napoleonic Wars, facing every sort of peril, in a friendship that deepens and matures over time.

Launched with this book in 1970, the series has become the gold standard of modern seafaring fiction.

JACK ABSOLUTE  In the kind of breakneck adventure for which the term "rollicking" was coined, C. C. Humphreys embroils his protagonist Captain Jack Absolute—onetime officer, full-time rake, and part-time spy—in  a duel, a chase, witty repartee, sex backstage (and onstage) at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and guest appearances by General Burgoyne AND Richard Brinsley Sheridan. And that's just the first three chapters.

In 1777, Jack and his Mohawk Indian blood brother, Ate, are ordered back to America to serve Britain in the fight against American independence. They soon find themselves battling ferocious colonial militiamen, British incompetence, and their own doubts about which master they serve.
Write what you know: Humpheys as Absolute

 The audacity with which Humphreys purloins a character out of Sheridan's classic stage comedy, The Rivals, for his own devices, is matched only by the skill with which he pulls it off—with plenty of dash, wry cynicism, bloody action, and a surprisingly tender and gripping love story that sneaks in the back door and turns the entire enterprise on its ear.

Actor, swordsman, and fight coordinator Humphreys knows whereof he writes. He first became acquainted with Jack Absolute when he played him in a stage production of The Rivals in 1987; since then, he has shepherded the character through three volumes of adventures, including The Blooding of Jack Absolute, and Absolute Honor.

PLAYING THE JACK  Mary Brown's vivid and ripping romantic adventure has justifiably become a cult favorite among thinking women everywhere. In rural England of the early Napoleonic era, teenage runaway Zoe, disguised as a boy, is discovered in a ditch by a ragged troupe of traveling performers.

Taken in and educated in stagecraft, cunning, and the school of life, eager young Zoe is spellbound by the troupe's leader—wily, enigmatic, flamboyant Jack, a complex, and conflicted man at war with himself who harbors as many secrets as Zoe herself.

From the rollicking start of their relationship on the road, Zoe evolves through a few more incarnations (including boudoir seductress), while the oh-so-fallible, yet noble-hearted Jack drops a few masks of his own, on their way to a climax full of skullduggery and redemption.

Lively dialogue, deeply faceted characters who never stop growing, and a riveting pas de deux between well-matched romantic partners make this an unforgettable (if shamefully unknown) classic.

OUTLANDER With a hit TV adaptation of her first novel on STARZ, Diana Gabaldon needs no introduction from me.

In this first (and arguably best) book in Gabaldon's time-traveling romantic adventure series, Englishwoman Claire Randall, a former nurse in bleak, postwar England, is vacationing in Scotland with her husband, recently returned from the front. At a group of eerie standing stones, she tumbles 200 years back in time to meet the soulmate of her life.

As heroes go, Jamie Fraser is the real deal: moral, courageous, good-humored, compassionate, and sexy in the best way—he doesn't know it. At only 24 years old Jamie is also a virgin—in a nifty twist on the old romance novel cliché about the tremulous virgin bride who has to be mastered by a more experienced husband. But there's nothing tremulous about Jamie; "I'm a virgin, not a monk," he tells Claire.

Packed with tumultuous history, hair-raising action, wry banter, compelling drama, and incendiary love scenes, Outlander is an exhilarating feast of a book.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

MIND FIELD

Aging detective vs. memory in lyrical Mr. Holmes

In the canon of famous literary characters, few have been so gleefully adulterated over the years as Sherlock Holmes.

The brilliant, eccentric "consulting detective," first conceived of by Arthur Conan Doyle in the1880s, has proved irresistible to countless other writers trying their hands at Holmesian-style tales, among many other multimedia adventurers.

In the famous series of mystery films of the '40s, Holmes was enlisted in the fight against Hitler. Two popular current TV series (the marvelous Sherlock, and Elementary) update Holmes to the present day.

So, the new movie, Mr. Holmes, joins a longstanding tradition of adapting the character to suit the needs of a new author or agenda, presenting an elderly Holmes in retirement attempting to solve one last case.
Hattie Morahan with McKellen: one last case

Based on the Mitch Cullin novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, it reunites star Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon, almost two decades after their successful collaboration on Gods And Monsters.

It is, in many ways, a lovely, lyrical film about aging, loss, and redemption, although it settles for an overall tone of wistfulness, instead of the deeper resonance it might have had.

The framing story begins in 1947, with McKellen's craggy, truly ancient-seeming Holmes returning to his stone farm cottage and bee hives on the Sussex Downs after a trip to postwar Japan. Retired from detecting for the past twenty-five years, he's gone to Japan in search of a rare herbal compound he hopes will improve his declining mental faculties.
He was a teenage Sherlock


After years of enduring Dr. Watson's fictions about him, Holmes is determined to write a story of his own.

Holmes' household is run by his Irish housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, whose young son, Roger (Milo Parker) is an avid reader and fan of Watson's stories.

But in addition to simply telling his story, Holmes is struggling against his diminishing powers to remember what happened in his last and only unsolved case—and why it was the reason he quit the profession.
Art imitates art imitating life: Mckellen and Rowe (onscreen)

The cross-currents underlying the plot are not always clear, nor is the central encounter of the film the emotional epiphany it needs to be.

(But there is a sly in-joke at the cinema with Holmes watching a black-and-white film about his exploits where the onscreen Holmes is played by actor Nicholas Rowe—who starred in Young Sherlock Holmes back in 1985.)

Mr. Holmes is a thoughtful, atmospheric addition to Holmesiana. Still, I hope the next time the movies want to do something really original with Sherlock Holmes, they discover the novels of Laurie King.
(Read more)


Sunday, July 19, 2015

BEHOLD BEAST!

Normally, I'm a tad superstitious about illustrating the characters in my novels.

As a reader (and all writers are readers first), I hate it when a book I'm reading has the "wrong" artwork, especially on the cover—that is, a different face or image than the one I'm creating in my head as I read along.

Reading is the original interactive pastime, and the reader has to do a lot of the legwork of bringing the character(s) to life in her own imagination. So it's always a jolt when, every time I close the book, the wrong face is staring back at me.

On the other hand, as the writer, I make dozens of character sketches for myself; I need to know what they look like from one scene to the next. (Eye color, hair color, which cheek has the mole, which hand has the hook, etc.)

I usually don't share these images. But this has been a big month for Beast, the hero of my next book, Beast: A Love Story. Last week, I signed the contract with my new publisher Candlewick Press. This week, I hit the 'send' button on the first draft completed under the careful eye of my new editor, Kaylan Adair. So I thought it was time to give Beast a face and introduce him to the public!

This won't be the ultimate image, I'm sure. As my concept of the character, or my skill, improve, maybe I'll come up with something closer to the essence of my Beast.

But this is what he looks like right now—evolving before our eyes!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A FOND FAREWELL

Very sad to hear of the passing of Roger Rees, beloved (and inexhaustible) star of the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic 8-hour production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

When Nicholas Nickleby was first broadcast on TV in the States in 1983, Rees' performance gave the whole sprawling enterprise its emotional center. His Nicholas navigated the massive plot with a quicksilver adrenalin-rush of moral courage that seemed to surprise even him.

I'm sure neither my husband nor his will mind me saying I've been in love with him ever since.

Still in the Dickensian mode, he had a featured role in the Georg C. Scott TV version of A Christmas Carol (Rees played nephew Fred), and a TV adaptation of John Fowles' The Ebony Tower. He went on to play recurring roles in Cheers (zillionaire Robin Colcord) and The West Wing (Lord John Marbury).
My poster from the RSC. It's still in my office .

I also enjoyed seeing him pop up in the odd movie over the years—Star 80, Mountains of the Moon, Frida, The Prestige. (Some of the damned odd; who could forget his energetic villainy as the nasty Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men In Tights?)

But his first love was always the stage. He played many leading Shakespearean roles, from A Comedy of Errors to Hamlet, with the RSC in England. He collaborated with playwright Tom Stoppard in original stage productions of The Real Thing and Hapgood. I raced like the wind down south for the chance to see him live, onstage, when Hapgood played in LA.

But (to my eternal regret) I missed his one-man stage show on playing Shakespeare, What You Will, when it played in San Francisco in 2008. And how I would've loved to see him play the divine Gomez Addams in The Addams Family musical on Broadway in 2011!

PR pic from Rees' solo show What You Will, 2008
More recently, Rees won an off-Broadway Obie in 2011, and was nominated for another Tony in 2012, for co-directing the Peter Pan prequel, Peter and the Starcatcher. (If only I'd gotten a grip and finished Alias Hook when he was still in his Forties, Rees would have been perfect for my James Hook!)

Earlier this year, he opened in the new musical, The Visit, opposite Chita Rivera, but had to withdraw in May for health reasons.

Rees' Nickleby had such a profound effect on me, I started binge-reading Dickens. I plowed through Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend (the best of the lot, with its splendid, propulsive river imagery) before I came up for air. For better or worse, I started seriously writing my own fiction soon after.

By all accounts, Roger Rees was as charming and gracious in real life as he was compelling and entertaining onstage.

Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Mr. Rees. You will be missed.

Update: I've just read that the lights of Broadway will be dimmed for one minute, at 7:45 pm, July 15, in honor of Roger Rees. A fitting tribute to a gifted player who loved the stage so much!

Friday, July 10, 2015

TWISTORY BUFF

Big kudos to Mr. Wallace Baine, the Bard of Corralitos, for his entertaining reading before a crowd of fans at Bookshop Santa Cruz last night.

The occasion was the publication of his new book, The Last Temptation of Lincoln: And Other Twistories, a sly collection of humorous short stories in which key historical incidents and figures are reimagined in ways that, while perhaps not a matter of factual record, certainly might have happened.

Or at least, it's fun to think so.

A 14-year-old mixed-race girl raised in a brothel who inspires the democratic ideals of Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine?  (Not to mention composing most of the text of the revolutionary Common Sense pamphlet attributed to Paine?)

A hush-hush lunar landing, called Apollo 11 1/2, where a 'B' team has to go clean up after the more famous moon landing?

A tobacco farmer from the 1830s transported by a bunch of Silicon Valley techno-geeks to the beach in modern-day Santa Cruz?

Well, why not? We can't say for sure that these things didn't happen!

Wallace's fanciful "twistory" book is available as we speak at BSC. Check it out!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

3, 2, 1, CONTRACT!

Break out the bubbly!

I've been working with my fabulous new editor, Kaylan Adair, at Candlewick for two months, but this week I finally got my contract for Beast: A Love Story!

Coming to a bookstore near you in the spring of 2017. Stay tuned for further details!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE WAR AT HOME

Political made personal in lush, heartfelt 'Testament of Youth'

It was called the war to end all wars. Its effects were so cataclysmic, no one who lived through what we now know as the First Worlds War, either in the trenches or on the homefront, could ever conceive that there might be another one.

Vera Brittain was a young Englishwoman whose studies at Oxford were derailed by the war. She wrote of her wartime experiences in the memoir, Testament of Youth, published in 1933, when, incredibly, the international drumbeat had already begun for the march toward the Second World War.

Brittain's book is a very personal view of the effects of the war on an entire generation, particularly the women—mothers, fiancées, sisters, friends—left behind.

It was adapted as a TV miniseries back in the 1970s. And now comes a powerful new feature film, Testament Of Youth, directed by TV movie veteran James Kent.

Adapted by Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), the film is both searing and heartfelt. By maintaining Brittain's focus on the minutiae of women's daily lives, and the gradual, inevitable encroachment of the war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a very broad canvas in very delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.
Egerton, Vikander, Harrington, Morgan: no idea what lies ahead.
 The film begins in the clamor of Armistice Day, 1918, with people thronging the streets in hysterical celebration. Flashback to the summer of 1914, in the idyllic English countryside of Buxton, where 19-year-old Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, last seen as the oh-so-sentient robot in Ex Machina), and her 17-year-old brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), are entertaining Edward's school chum, Victor (Colin Morgan) with a swim in the lake.

The talk of the Brittain household is Edward's impending graduation from preparatory school and acceptance at Oxford. Vera also dreams of attending Oxford to study English literature, but their father (Dominic West) considers it a useless expense for a girl—he wants her to find a husband instead.
Vikander as Vera: Oxford bound.

Just when volatile Vera is denouncing marriage as a barrier to women's self-expression and freedom, another of Edward's school friends arrives, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). An amateur poet himself, smitten with prickly Vera, he makes all the wrong moves trying to befriend her—until he encourages her to write.

During the next year, they become pen pals and soulmates, exchanging poems and fueling each others' dreams.

The lush, pastoral nature of these early domestic scenes, and the languorous pace with which Kent and Towhidi set them up, show what is sacrificed to war, in terms of lifestyle, dreams, and, of course, promising young lives.
Harrington and Vikander: collateral damage
When the young men graduate the next year, war is looming. Edward helps Vera convince their father to let her take the entrance exams for Oxford, and she's thrilled when she's accepted.

But by then, Edward, Roland, and Victor have already signed up to go "fight the Huns" in Europe—with no earthly idea of what awaits them there.

Vera soon disappoints her headmistress (Miranda Richardson) by quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse.

The hospital scenes can be harrowing, but no less so than Vera's attempts to reconnect with her psychologically damaged friends after they've been to the front, or the heartache of letting them go again.
Vikander, Richardson: left behind.

The eagerness of these young people to make a difference, to be a part of something larger than themselves, can't be faulted. But the more experienced she becomes (at a field hospital in France, she tends German as well as English soldiers), the more fervently Vera believes that war itself is the enemy, a lie to seduce young men into madness.

Vikander is luminous as Vera, with Egerton buoyant as brother Edward. Harrington (aka Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) makes a properly romantic Roland, but the real find is Colin Morgan, warm and dynamic as their friend, Victor.

And director Kent has a shrewd eye for telling details: an island of women waving goodbye as a troop train pulls out; a church pew full of mourning women in black on Armistice Day; innocuous objects the eye zeroes in on while a woman receives devastating news on the phone.

It's these personal details that make the film so hauntingly universal.
The real-life Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson, ca 1915


Sunday, June 28, 2015

DESIGNING WOMAN


Female gardener helps build Versailles in fun, if uneven 'A Little Chaos'

Alan Rickman is capable of so much more than his sublimely unctuous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. Still, the chance to see Snape as King Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France, in the period piece, A Little Chaos, is just about irresistible.

It's a surprisingly good fit: both characters are imperious, uncompromising, and suffer fools not at all. And Rickman layers each character with an unexpected shading of sympathy.

Rickman also directs the film, and you can see why he was  eager to cast himself in such a plummy role. It's also the kind of popular reimagined history in which a plucky woman defies convention to make her way in a male-dominated society.

Rickman as Louis XIV: extreme unction
 Co-written by Rickman (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan), this romantic historical drama concerns a genteel widow eking out a precarious living as a gardener who receives a commission to design a garden at Versailles.

It's a charming concept with a great cast, and a splendid showcase for star Kate Winslet, even if it doesn't quite all come together.

Sabine De Barra (Winslet) is a young widow in 1682 Paris, supporting herself as a gardener. King Louis (Rickman) is building himself the magnificent new palace of Versailles in the countryside. Sabine dares to submit her plans for one of the royal gardens to the king's legendary landscape architect, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen in Far From the Madding Crowd).

She's treated as a joke by the other (male) garden designers vying for a commission—and by Le Notre himself, at first—but her plans intrigue Le Notre, who grants her a commission to plant a garden and build a waterfall for an outdoor ballroom at Versailles.
Winslet and Schoenaerts: big plans

While Le Notre favors "order," and Sabine appreciates a little "chaos" in design, they earn each others' respect amid the pomp and petty rivalries within Louis' circle. (Among the film's pleasures is Stanley Tucci as the Duc d'Orleans, Louis' droll royal brother, whose humor consistently livens up the action.)

Winslet is wonderful, as unaffected, sensible Sabine, working in the mud alongside her construction crew, and speaking with refreshing candor to Louis himself in a nice moment when she mistakes him for one of the king's gardeners.

Another intriguing scene occurs at court, when Louis' new favorite, Madame de Montespan (a lovely Jennifer Ehle) befriends Sabine and introduces her to the sisterhood of court ladies—mistresses, former favorites, dowagers—all of whom, like Sabine, have lost children, or husbands, or both. And all of whom are fascinated to meet a woman who actually does something in her life. These women deserve more screen time.

First Wives Club, 17th Century-style
Schoenaerts' Le Notre is perhaps too restrained and stoic, even for someone cautiously navigating court society. He never gets angry at his scheming wife (he seethes quietly, but never yells), nor quite loses himself in passion with Sabine. This is partly the fault of the script, in which his character fades into the background, partnering Winslet with gallant deference, the way the prince in a ballet steps out of the spotlight while the ballerina dances her solo.
Portrait of the real-life Andre Le Notre

Not that they don't have some sexy and affectionate scenes together. (When Le Notre and Sabine take a break at the job site and share an impromptu meal of rustic bread and home-made pâté, it's memorable as one of the first—and few—times that the guarded Le Notre actually smiles.) But Schoenaerts is such a compelling actor with so much presence, and Winslet is so vibrant, we wish their characters were taking more joy in each other.

(By all accounts, the real-life Le Notre was a wit, whose droll humor earned him Louis' fickle friendship throughout his life. In real life, Le Notre was also 25 years older than Louis, but why ruin a good story with dreary facts?)

Sadly, there is no historical evidence that anyone like Sabine existed, or helped build Versailles. But so what? The whole point of imagining such a scenario in a historical context is to encourage women to push boundaries in their own lives, to promote what Carolyn Heilbrun in her seminal book, "Writing A Woman's Life," refers to as "...the alternate life (the writer) wishes to inscribe upon the female imagination." In that respect, for all its flaws, A Little Chaos succeeds beautifully.