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The Chaperone (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

The Chaperone


Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Geza Rohrig, Campbell Scott, Andrew Burnap, Victoria Hill, Miranda Otto, Blythe Danner, Matt McGrath, Becky Ann Baker, Jonathan Walker, Robert Fairchild, Bill Hoag, Stan Demidoff, Ellen Toland, Cilda Shaur, Kate Grimes, George Hampe, Kate Abbruzzese, Ruben Navarro, Tyler Weaks, Steve Garfanti and Craig Geraghty.

Screenplay by Julian Fellowes.

Directed by Michael Engler.

Distributed by PBS Distribution. 103 minutes. Not Rated.

Silent film star Louise Brooks had a fascinating, tragic life. She came from nowhere, briefly exploded to become the biggest star in the world, then returned quickly to obscurity. She fought mental issues, addiction problems, the scandal of multiple famous lovers, eventual poverty and movie-business sexism. Brooks had it hard from the start – she was molested at nine years old by a neighbor (her distant mother blamed it on Louise when she told her) and was drinking by 14. She never achieved the greatness she yearned for because she was never willing to play the Hollywood game.

And yet, even a hundred years later she is considered a cinematic and fashion icon and one of the earliest sex symbols on film. (Critic Kenneth Tynan referred to her as “the most seductive, sexual image of woman ever committed to celluloid” in a 1979 article for The New Yorker.) Her German film Pandora’s Box is one of the most celebrated silent films – and deservedly so. She is one of the few silent film actors that people can still recognize and name just by looking at them.

However, she was not just a sex symbol. She was a terrific actress and dancer, to the point where if you saw her on stage or screen you couldn’t take your eyes off her. Her naturalistic acting style bridged the gap from the exaggerated acting of silent films to the more realistic performances in talkies.

A strong, independent woman before there was a place for them, she got a reputation as a trouble maker and was blackballed in film. They claimed her voice was odd and wouldn’t work in sound films, but that was not the case. Which was fine by her, she hated the film business.

Problem was by then she was a bit old (in her 30s!) to make a splash back in what she felt was her true talent – as a dancer. As things became more difficult for her, she failed at opening a dance studio in her native Kansas, returned to New York, slipped into prostitution briefly, then became something of a shut-in in a New York tenement for decades.

Her work was eventually rediscovered by European and American film fans in the 1950s and 1960s, and she was finally given her due as a groundbreaking actress. Finally, as an older woman she became a very well-regarded writer, doing many articles about her life and careers and releasing the best-selling autobiography Lulu in Hollywood a few years before her death in 1985.

So, it is a brilliant idea to make a movie about the life and times of Louise Brooks.

The Chaperone is a story about the life of Louise Brooks. Well, sort of. Brooks is just a supporting character in this film, which actually revolves around another woman who was briefly an intimate part of her life.

The Chaperone shows us a Louise Brooks who was young (16-years-old) and full of promise, in New York for her first possible break – an opportunity to join a celebrated modern dance troupe. Brooks was a Kansas girl who was spoiling to break out of the heartland and become the greatest dancer in the world. She was extremely pretty and knew how to use it – flirting to get men to do her bidding and to buy her things. She was worldly, very open about sex and liquor, particularly for a Kansas girl in the very early 1900s. She hoped and believed that she was on her way to stardom, and most of the people around her also saw that as inevitable.

This is all interesting stuff, but her life became so much more interesting later. They do touch on her dramatic rise and fall in a brief “twenty years later” prologue and postscript, but most of the film deals with a very specific, formative period of her life. More specifically, The Chaperone tells the story of how Louise Brooks changed another woman’s world – not the other way around.

Like I said, it’s not necessarily the Louise Brooks story. And, honestly, a broader view of the ups and downs of Brooks’ life would have probably been a more interesting cinematic experience. Still, that was not the story that Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes decided to tell. The film is based on a popular historical novel of the same title by Laura Moriarty about a woman whose life was briefly intertwined with the young ingenue, and how that experience affected her.

Taking The Chaperone for what it is – a window into the life and mores of New York in the prohibition era with Louise Brooks as a companion – it’s a rather intriguing and charming movie.

The main character – and the chaperone of the title – is Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), a forty-something Wichita housewife. Norma offers to accompany Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) to New York for the tryout on a whim, after seeing her give a performance at a local recital by her mother, a well-respected local pianist.

We eventually learn that Norma has other reasons to want to take the trip. Her sons have gone away to college. She is having some marital problems with her longtime husband Alan (Campbell Scott). She was also an orphan who was originally adopted from a New York home and she wants to try to find out more about her long-lost parents.

The trip gives her an excuse to get away, however Norma takes her responsibility to watch over the girl very seriously. However, as they get to know each other, their initial mistrust changes to grudging respect. And through Louise’s devil-may-care attitude, Norma is able to loosen up and make some big changes in her own life.

The film – which is produced by PBS and written by the storyteller behind Downton Abbey – has a little bit of a Masterpiece Theater feel. That repressed historical vibe is natural to the film’s heroine and to its setting. However, Louise Brooks had many problems in her life, but repression was never one of them. Her character seems to be struggling against the movie’s storyline and mood, always just about to break free of the refined world in which she has been plopped down.

Haley Lu Richardson captures the wild joie de vivre and fearlessness of the young future star, and frankly when Louise is not on the screen you tend to miss her and wonder what kind of trouble Louise is getting herself into.

This is a not a knock on the performance of star Elizabeth McGovern, who is terrific in capturing a buttoned-down middle-aged society matron who finally had her eyes opened to the possibilities and the contradictions of the world. Actually, back in 1981 McGovern was terrific playing a similarly worldly but tragic dancer in another piece of early 1900s historical fiction – portraying the gorgeous actress/model/dancer Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime, who like Brooks never lived up to her potential and eventually became better known for her scandals than her acting.

It’s not Norma’s fault that she is not as intriguing as Louise. Few people were. That is the whole point of the movie, and even Norma as a character openly acknowledges that her life is staid in comparison. Louise was a force of nature through which Norma learned to become a fuller, more adventurous and open-minded person. And, in fairness, Norma did teach the young girl a certain amount about responsibility and life.

As said before, it’s all interesting enough, but it would have been so much more interesting if it was a straight look at Brooks, rather than one which takes a gaze at her experience from a cockeyed angle. Hopefully someone will pick up the ball and do a legitimate Louise Brooks biography. Hey, Ryan Murphy – Brooks’ life has the potential to be a natural follow-up miniseries to Feud: Bette and Joan. You’re welcome, just don’t forget to thank me at the Emmys.

However, that isn’t the story that The Chaperone shares. Taking the movie on its own terms it’s a perfectly enjoyable film-going experience. It tells a very specific story about two very different women thrown together and changing each other’s lives, and it tells it well. We’ll just have to wait to get the real Louise Brooks story.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: April 26, 2019.

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