2019, NR, 108 min. Directed by Michael Engler. Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Blythe Danner, Campbell Scott, Géza Röhrig, Miranda Otto, Robert Fairchild.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 12, 2019
No chaperones are necessary to watch this genteel movie. Although the terrific cast manages to deliver some small, lovely moments, The Chaperone keeps its corset fully laced and its narrative intentions in check.
The film is based on Laura Moriarty’s popular novel of historical fiction, The Chaperone, whose audiobook version is read by Elizabeth McGovern (who stars in and is also a producer of this film). Two of McGovern’s compatriots from Downton Abbey – Julian Fellowes (the show’s writer and creator) and one of its directors, Michael Engler – have joined her in this endeavor, which tells a story about the silent-movie star Louise Brooks during her formative years prior to becoming an iconic screen presence and universal symbol of the era’s new independent woman. After an unsatisfying career in Hollywood films in the late 1920s, Brooks broke out in 1929 as Lulu, the star of Pandora’s Box, a film made in Germany by acclaimed director G.W. Pabst. Then and now, Brooks’ carefree onscreen demeanor and helmut bob defined the popular idea of the modern Jazz Age woman. Her career never reached such heights again.
The Chaperone mostly takes place in 1922 when Brooks (Richardson) was 15 and a dancing scholarship in New York City became her ticket out of the cultural backwater of Wichita, Kan. Despite having earned an opportunity to study at Denishawn, the famous modern-dance school formed by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Brooks’ father refused to let her go unaccompanied, hence “the chaperone,” about whom next to nothing is historically known. It’s a gap that allowed author Moriarty and screenwriter Fellowes to imagine quite a lot. The storyline concocts a tale in which Brooks’ insouciance and focused ambition are contrasted with the decorum and social acquiescence of her chaperone Norma Carlisle (McGovern). And surprise: A little of each rubs off on the other.
Additionally, the film throws in references to the changing times with unsubtle references to the beginning of Prohibition, women’s newly won right to suffrage, the abandonment of corsets, the cruelty of schadenfreude, etc. While Louise is at class during the day, Norma, an adoptee, engages in some sleuthing to learn the identity of her birth parents. Through flashbacks, we learn the reason she is shown as lukewarm toward her marriage – and like her parental search (and the film’s pie-in-the-sky closing sequence) Norma’s concerns seem more suited to the 21st century than early 20th.
Nevertheless, there are numerous little moments between Richardson (who captures Brooks’ mannerisms but whose face is a bit too round to fully replicate the look) and McGovern (always a pleasure) that are precious enough to be frozen in amber. But make no mistake: This is a story about a fictitious chaperone and her times. It is not a prequel to what has been passed down as the legendary but cautionary Louise Brooks story. Because The Chaperone’s second fiddle doesn’t soak up the spotlight as readily as its star, the film leaves the viewer with an unsatisfied longing for more Brooks.