King Louis XIV of France assigns the design and construction of the Gardens of Versailles to André Le Nôtre. He interviews several other gardeners who submitted designs for the project, including one woman who works alone, Sabine de Barra. He sees her move a potted plant in his garden prior to her interview, and questions her deference to order in design. Sabine affirms her respect for his work and suggests that she would like to create something uniquely French rather than follow classical and renaissance styles. He shows her the door in record time, and she leaves disheartened.
On the night after her interview, André surprises Sabine at her home and tasks her with responsibility for an outdoor ballroom surrounded by a fountain and landscaping. André's plans had called for a constant supply of water from a great distance at great expense. Sabine devises another engineering solution based on a reservoir from which water can be continuously recycled through the fountains she has designed. She makes little progress at first, with workmen recommended by one of the men rejected by André, until another competitor, Thierry Duras, intervenes and offers the use of his crew.
As a beautiful commoner Sabine stands out at court, attracting attention, and is befriended by the King's brother Duc Philippe d'Orleans and his wife Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine. At times, Sabine appears haunted by brief glimpses of a young girl or a girl's voice she hears calling. She is attracted to André but does not act on her feelings, while André quietly endures the infidelities of his wife Françoise, who insists that her husband's success is founded on her influence at court. When Françoise warns him against an affair with Sabine, he quotes her own speech declaring their right to seek comfort elsewhere, and becomes resolute in his intention to pursue a relationship with Sabine.
Queen Maria Theresa dies suddenly. André informs his wife, who is shaken at the prospect that this will lessen her influence at court. The king is shocked at the loss of his wife and takes refuge in his gardener's work area, amongst the pear trees. Sabine finds the king there as she delivers perennials for a trade, first mistaking him for the gardener. After she recognizes him she agrees to continue their conversation as equals. She finds great favour in the king's eyes, and he invites her to travel with him and his court to his palace and gardens at Fontainebleau.
On a stormy day, Louis XIV visits Sabine's work site and assesses the project skeptically but allows it to proceed. After he leaves, Sabine is visited by Françoise, who tells her that André's passionate intentions are only a whim and will prove short-lived. After they both leave, Françoise's lover opens the sluice gates from the reservoir and floods the work site, destroying much of the earthworks. Sabine nearly drowns trying to close the gate, and André saves her.
Afterwards, André finds a glove that belongs to his wife Françoise. He returns the glove and ends their relationship.
Sabine goes to court again, where Duc de Lauzun introduces her to the king's mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, who in turn introduces her to the women of the court. At first they tease her, but when they learn she is widowed and lost her 6-year-old daughter, they reveal their own losses and welcome her into their circle, where they often discuss topics the king forbids at court, including the deaths of their children. The Marquise formally presents Sabine to the King when he arrives, and Sabine offers him a four-seasons rose. They converse about the nature of the rose and its life cycle, hardships and death, and the gardener's responsibilities.
André waits for Sabine outside her room that night, and they finally make love. In the morning, André finds himself alone in bed. Sabine is upstairs, lost in the memory of the day her daughter and husband died. He told Sabine he had a mistress that he is going to visit her, taking their daughter with him. As they are leaving Sabine sees that the carriage has a faulty wheel and races after them, and when she stops in front of the carriage it topples off the road and down a hill, killing both father and daughter. André finds Sabine in the grip of this memory and convinces her to stop blaming herself for their deaths.
When Sabine's project is complete, the king and his court arrive for its inauguration. To the music of a hidden orchestra, everyone begins dancing as the fountains send water coursing down the tiers around the ballroom floor. Sabine and André leave the others dancing and walk into the garden together.
The story was conceived by Allison Deegan, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Rickman and Jeremy Brock. The film was financed by the Lionsgate UK and produced by BBC Films.
Production began in March 2013. Producer Zygi Kamasa of Lionsgate said that "we are delighted to be working with the best of British actors and directors like Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman as we move forward in doubling our investment in British films in 2014." Rickman said: "The film is not just frills at the wrists and collars. It's about people getting their hands dirty and building something in order to entertain the other world they serve. It's about how one world maintains the other, often at the cost of women."
On 17 January 2013, it was announced that Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts had been cast as the leads in the film. Rickman had Winslet in mind for the lead role of Sabine de Barra and continued with her when two weeks into shooting, Winslet announced that she was pregnant. In addition to directing, Rickman took the role of King Louis XIV. He explained that "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. As a director, you see everything somehow. It's like a huge all-encompassing eye that sees everything, and it's able to cherry pick; "Move that," "Don't do that," "Do it this way," "Change this colour". And I don't know where that comes from, but it does, once you're given the job, and I have a feeling Louis probably would've been a great film director".
Despite being set in France, complete filming took place in England. Principal photography commenced on 27 March 2013 and continued over eight weeks in Black Park, Cliveden House, Pinewood Studios, Blenheim Palace, Waddesdon Manor, Hampton Court Palace, Ham House, Ashridge and Chenies Manor. Filming ended on 8 June 2013 in Richmond, London.
According to Rickman, filming "wasn't easy, though; throwing Kate into freezing water at 1am, the carriage crash, scenes with 80 extras, tight schedules in venues like Blenheim Palace. It's a constant tap dance between control and freedom and of course the budget guides everything."
The soundtrack was composed by Peter Gregson. It was the first feature film for Gregson, who previously composed music for a 2014 short film Every Quiet Moment. Veigar Margeirsson's 2008 composition "Rise above" was used in the trailer of the film but was not part of soundtrack album. It was released by Milan Records on 16 April 2015.
BBC Films revealed footage from the film as part of their BBC Films Sizzle Showreel 2013 on 25 November 2013. First stills of Kate Winslet were released on 22 July 2014 with the announcement of film's premiere at 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Three images from the film featuring Winslet, Alan Rickman and Jennifer Ehle were released on 27 August 2014. A scene from the film featuring Winslet and Rickman was revealed on 9 September 2014. The full-length official trailer was revealed on 19 December 2014. The first poster and another trailer were released on 20 January 2015. On 11 June 2015, another scene from the film featuring Stanley Tucci was released.
The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival as the closing night film on 13 September 2014. It was then shown in gala screenings as Love Gala at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival on 17 October 2014. Rickman presented the film at Camerimage film festival in November 2014. The United States premiere was held at the Sonoma International Film Festival on 25 March 2015. It had a theatrical release in Australia on 26 March 2015 and in UK on 17 April 2015.
It was initially set for a theatrical release on 27 March 2015 in the United States but it was later pulled out. Focus Features finally gave the film a theatrical and VOD release simultaneously in United States on 26 June 2015.
As of July 2015, the film has been opened in fourteen territories including Australia and UK and combined with its domestic box office, it has grossed $10,084,623 worldwide.
The film generated mixed reviews from critics, with the performances from the cast being highly praised. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 40% rating based on reviews from 75 critics, with an average score of 5.3/10. The site's consensus states that "Stylish and well-acted without ever living up to its dramatic potential, A Little Chaos is shouldered by the impressive efforts of a talented cast." At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film holds an average score of 51, based on 15 reviews, which indicates "mixed or average reviews".
Catherine Shoard of The Guardian gave the film three out of five stars and wrote that "Winslet manages emotional honesty within anachronistic confines, and Schoenaerts escapes with dignity." Mark Adams in his review for Screen International said, "the film is a gracefully made delight, replete with lush costumes, fruity performances, love amongst the flowerbeds and even a little mild peril. Yes it lacks real dramatic edge and may be seen as a typical British period costume film, but it is also a classily made pleasure that will delight its target audience." David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter felt that "This decently acted film is agreeable entertainment, even if it works better on a scene by scene basis than in terms of overall flow." Tim Robey in The Telegraph said in his review: "If you see only one film about 17th-century French landscape gardening this year, it probably ought to be A Little Chaos, a heaving bouquet of a picture."
However, David Sexton of the London Evening Standard gave the film a negative review, saying that "Kate Winslet charms as a gardener at the Court of Louis XIV, but it's not enough to keep this inauthentic piece from wilting." Dennis Harvey of Variety also criticized the film, writing that A Little Chaos is "all too tidy as it imposes a predictable, pat modern sensibility on a most unconvincing depiction of late 17th-century French aristocratic life." Kaleem Aftab of The Independent gave the film two out of five stars, noting that while the performances were exceptional, but the talents of the players were wasted. He wrote that "it all starts off so promisingly" and praised the camera work and language, but found it quickly fails as "a melancholic look at grief" where "at least four different genres [clash] against each other, occasionally in the same scene" and "the romance seems to take place off-screen." She concluded: "There was a 17 year gap between Rickman's first and second film and on this evidence it's easy to see why. While he can get performances out of the actors, he lacks command of pacing and plot."
Some of the film's characters are fictional, including Kate Winslet's Sabine de Barra. The film is set in 1682, but André Le Nôtre, began work at Versailles in 1661. Le Notre was nearly 70 in 1682, twice the age he appears to be as portrayed by Schoenaerts in the film. A garden much like that in the film exists at Versailles, the Salle de Bal or Bosquet de la Salle-de-Bal.