Historical fiction and Old Hollywood have always gone together and now is a great time for the two. Earlier this year author Heather Terrell penned Only Woman in the Room, a fictional look at Hedy Lamarr’s life and scientific discoveries, and in 2012 Laura Moriarty released The Chaperone. A loose look at the early career of actress Louise Brooks, The Chaperone was eventually adapted by Downton Abbey screenwriter/directing duo, Julian Fellowes and Michael Engler, respectively. On its own merits, The Chaperone is a beautifully shot tale of feminine friendship and desire that will certainly appeal to both Downton Abbey and TCM fans.
Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) is an impetuous Kansas native with the opportunity to travel to New York to study dance. But her mother demands a chaperone accompany her. Enter Norma Carlyle (Elizabeth McGovern), a housewife hoping to escape a crumbling marriage. The two’s adventure to New York is anything but ordinary with each learning more about life than she could ever imagine.
No doubt the audience for this knows little about Louise Brooks’ career in general, let alone her early days in Witchita, Kansas. (Brooks was actually born in the Kansas city of Cherryvale and spent little time in Witchita itself.) The allure here is both Moriarty’s novel and the team of Engler and Fellowes, who create an atmosphere of both fun and adventure tempered with humanity and passion. The film isn’t even a Brooks biopic, necessarily. Louise is more a famous conduit by which to tell the original story of fictional character Norma Carlyle.
The two women meet as polar opposites; Louise the headstrong young woman desperate to flee her Kansas city (and her cold artist mother). Norma is a content mother to twins, but her marriage is broken due to a slowly unfolding tale of infidelity that’s telegraphed within the first scene. But it’s obvious that Norma is drawn to Louise, both because of her spirit and freedom but also as an exciting means to inject some life within her. It’s a plot highly familiar to those who saw the delightful 1940s throwback feature, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a movie anyone should be proud to reference.
McGovern gives off vibes akin to a Greer Garson. Her Norma is a warm, stable presence. She isn’t a mother figure to Louise, more an example of how a woman can be. Fellowes’ script never says there’s a right or wrong way to be a woman, simply that times are changing. Norma doesn’t have to wear a corset as much as Louise doesn’t have to overindulge in the prohibited alcohol flowing through the city. Each woman has to realize their strengths and weaknesses and change because they want to. As the movie ramps up in seriousness, with Louise confiding in her chaperone and Norma taking a chance on a new relationship with a German groundskeeper, the acting just becomes so powerful.
For all McGovern’s seriousness there’s Hayley Lu Richardson’s bright light as young Mary Louise Brooks. Whether it’s dancing or holding a glass, Richardson conveys all the glamour, elegance, and energy that Brooks exuded on the screen. She’s not the prototypical flapper dancing the Charleston and drinking bathtub gin. Richardson gives Brooks mountains of ambition she’s constantly climbing towards. When she confesses to Norma that her promiscuous reputation is the result of sexual abuse, Richardson’s face breaks your heart.
On top of the two leading ladies you have the sheer eye candy of the settings and costumes (which you’d expect nothing but high quality from the Downton Abbey gang). The Chaperone is a sweetly told tale of friendship and independence that classic film fans and costume drama lovers will eat up.
You can stream The Chaperone through PBS Masterpiece Prime Video Channel
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.