Written by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Michael Engler
Starring Miranda Otto, Haley Lu Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern
Running time: 1 hour and 43 minutes
by Deborah Krieger
The Chaperone has the problem of being about someone who is interesting-adjacent. Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone is a fictionalized account of the coquettish and provocative actress Louise Brooks’ (Haley Lu Richardson) first summer in New York City, as seen through the eyes of the thoroughly ordinary wife and mother Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern). Before she was bob-haired Lulu in Pandora’s Box, Louise Brooks was a rebellious dancer who first came to New York from Wichita, Kansas, to study with the famed dancers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. As was appropriate for 1922, she was accompanied by a chaperone, Alice Mills, about whom we actually know very little. The Chaperone, then, imagines this mysterious woman as someone who was touched, briefly, by liveliness and grace and talent, caught in the light of Louise’s shining star as she comes to New York for reasons of her own.
Sometimes casting choices are just so natural that you wonder how it hadn’t happened already. Haley Lu Richardson as Louise Brooks is one of those perfectly serendipitous pairings of historical figure and actor. Richardson’s interpretation of Louise Brooks is insouciant and flirtatious, mixing the energy of her role in the underrated Support the Girls with some of the pathos she showed us in Columbus (my favorite movie of 2017) just beneath the surface. Even when the classic bob wig looks fake (and my god, does it look fake), she simply dazzles, to the extent that you wish the movie was about her. The fact that The Chaperone focuses more and more on Norma as the narrative continues means it gets just a little less exciting.
That’s not to say that Elizabeth McGovern doesn’t do great work in The Chaperone. You’re entranced by her eyes that seem to see everything and reflect more than the body reveals, rather like Keri Russell, for comparison. Her Norma Carlisle is mannerly, dutiful, and repressed, making her a natural foil for Louise Brooks. But there’s clearly something in Norma Carlisle that longs for a life outside of Wichita, where a friend can just blithely drop into a conversation that she and her husband are joining the Ku Klux Klan and she’s not permitted to react to that bombshell. After seeing Louise dance and being thoroughly enchanted, she offers herself as a chaperone to Louise’s family, promising that she will keep Louise out of trouble. (Naturally, that proves a task all on its own.)
But it’s clear from the beginning that Norma volunteers to chaperone Louise to New York for other reasons. The wooden body language she displays when she’s around her husband Alan (Campbell Scott) is the first sign of why Norma wants out of Wichita; the need to quash her reactions to things that upset her, like having a friend join the Klan, is another. But Norma’s really come to track down her birth parents by way of the Catholic orphanage in New York City she lived in until she was adopted by farmers in Kansas. Haunted by the memory of being held and sung to in a foreign language by a dark-haired woman, Norma wants to find out who she is, and who her parents were, and why they gave her up. Louise’s dancing talent is the mechanism, and also a source of admiration in its own right.
The Chaperone is produced by PBS Masterpiece and is being shown in theaters, but like On the Basis of Sex, it feels more suited to television. The budget is clearly lower for things like wigs and backdrops and old-age makeup to the extent that it’s noticeable, as if they spent it all on hiring Blythe Danner, who shows up later in the film for one scene. Most of the scenes are shot as interior sequences, as it can’t be easy to create a realistic 1920s New York out of whole cloth. Another point that isn’t budgetary: Louise apologizes to Norma for “spoiling” the end of The Age of Innocence, which strikes me as a massive anachronism. (I can’t find references to “spoiler” that date before the 1970s.) So you turn to the acting itself to find delights, of which there are a good amount—mostly from Richardson, but also from Miranda Otto, who plays the dramatic Ruth St. Denis, and from Géza Röhrig, who plays Joseph, a German immigrant handyman at the Catholic Orphanage who becomes close to Norma. The production clearly saved money on stunt doubles: Richardson draws on her dance background (which I had to Google) quite expertly in the dance scenes.
The interactions between Norma and Louise are where the film shines. There’s the inevitable tension between the middle-aged housewife and the young soon-to-be flapper, who see the world in wholly different ways. Louise is happy to flirt her way into free ice cream sundaes and trips to hidden speakeasies, while Norma is torn between wanting to open up to Joseph and honoring her facsimile of a marriage to her husband, who is revealed to be gay. Louise sits comfortably in an integrated theater, while Norma is anxious about getting into trouble. Norma tells Louise that no man wants candy that’s been unwrapped as a way of dissuading her from having sex, while Louise, eyes bright with something painful, laughs at the old-fashioned expression. But even if they don’t meet in the middle, Norma and Louise’s time together changes Norma for the better. She doesn’t have to go all out like Louise Brooks and drink in speakeasies to enjoy some happiness, to name and act upon her desires for a change. It’s not clear how much of an impact Norma made on Louise, though; the end of the film (set in 1942) shows the actress hiding in her family home with bottles of alcohol, her career in ruins, so that thread gets dropped in a less than satisfactory way.
At the beginning of The Chaperone, Norma Carlisle enters the room standing stiffly beside her husband, not arm-in-arm like all of the other couples. By the end of the movie, she’s been corset-free for twenty years, sets her table with beer glasses, and lives in a sort of blended family with Joseph, Greta, Greta’s daughter, Alan, and Alan’s lover Raymond; she also walks home with Joseph, arm in arm.