Two and a half stars
Director Michael Engler
Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Campbell Scott
Running time 108 minutes
Verdict A stiff-backed period piece
WHY focus on the star when there’s a dowdy bit player hovering in the wings, just waiting to be discovered?
This well-frocked costume drama operates from the premise that we’ve heard Louise Brooks’ story — or one like it — before.
Adapted by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) from Laura Moriarty’s novel of the same name, The Chaperone tells the story of the legendary flapper’s introduction to New York from the perspective of the straight-laced, middle-aged woman who accompanied her.
So far, so promising.
And the fictional Wichita housewife is based on a genuine “historical footnote”.
But while Norma Carlisle’s (Elizabeth McGovern) personal transformation might have the capacity to be much more dramatic than that of her single-minded and already precocious young charge, here she feels more like an exercise in wish fulfillment than a real character.
That’s partly because she’s asked to represent so many different stories of prejudice and repression (spanning child abuse, gender equality and sexual orientation).
McGovern (Downton Abbey) does her level best to give Norma some emotional depth, but she’s working with a fairly empty vessel.
Haley Lu Richardson (Five Feet Apart) has no such problems with the character of Brooks, whom she earths with a compelling physical intensity.
The Chaperone works best when it sticks more closely to the established facts.
The scenes involving Brooks and her unconventional and somewhat competitive mother, Myra (Australian actress Victoria Hill) pique moviegoers’ interest (now, there’s a supporting character that really might be worth exploring).
Brooks’ breakdown — after a wild night at a Manhattan speakeasy — also contains a nugget of truth.
Carlisle’s journey — she’s accompanied Brooks in the hope of tracking down information about her own biological parents, who abandoned her to a Catholic orphanage — feels rather staged by comparison.
As for the happy ending — in which Carlisle finds a way to embrace her true love while still living contentedly with her wayward husband (Campbell Scott) — well, it really is a bit too good to be true.
The Chaperone tries to support a rather flabby screenplay with a corset
motif that runs all the way through it. But a tightly laced metaphor is no match for a strong narrative backbone. And as an emblem of
sexual repression, it sits rather oddly on McGovern’s stick-thin body.
A disappointing effort from the team behind Downton Abbey, who seem to have allowed the message to get in the way of what might have been a good story.