Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Based on Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel, The Chaperone follows Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), a young dancer from Kansas, and Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), a morally upstanding society matron and family acquaintance who accompanies Louise as she seeks her big break with a New York City troupe. The loose corsets and looser morals of the big city appeal to 15 year-old Louise, stifled by the isolation of Wichita and the oddly competitive attitude of her mother. Louise’s determination and youthful rebellion sparkle when featured, yet the film follows its title and focuses too squarely on the lackluster drama of Norma.
Originally from the city herself, Norma spent her childhood years in a Catholic orphanage before being adopted and, eventually, marrying well to husband Alan (Campbell Scott). On her return to New York with Louise, her past, including the identity of her biological parents, becomes a mystery she finally has the means and opportunity to solve. However, the nuns at her childhood home are less than impressed with Norma’s insistence on knowing her roots and provide no help. The ensuing quest for answers takes up much of the movie’s runtime, as does Norma’s growing friendship with a German immigrant (Géza Röhrig) who may be in a position to assist where the nuns would not.
McGovern is a fine actress regrettably saddled with material that never quite rises above the level of middling made-for-TV drama. Flashbacks reveal that Norma’s marriage to Alan is not as happy as she would like others to believe, but even this added wrinkle to her prim and proper life fails to make Norma a character engaging enough to take the lead.
Louise presents a far more interesting – and real-life – character, particularly seen as she is in the years before she became a recognizable silent film star. We’re treated to glimpses of her journey: flirting with the boy who works at a nearby ice cream parlor, sneaking out to jazz clubs, and the unfettered confidence on display when she dances. All of these moments are weighed down by Norma’s paint-by-numbers drama.
The Chaperone was adapted for the screen by Julian Fellowes, creator of Downtown Abbey, and directed by Michael Engler, who also helmed several episodes of the popular BBC series and remained behind the camera for the upcoming movie. Their involvement, alongside Lady Grantham herself, should have made this period drama a slam-dunk. However, it seems that Downton fans will need to wait a few more months for the satisfying reunion they desire.