The Chaperone draws a few parallels to My Week with Marilyn. Both films revolve around actresses who were the definition of sex symbols during the height of their popularity. Instead of solely focusing on the screen legend in question, however, the spotlight is shared with a supporting player from a chapter of their life. The Chaperone centers on Louise Brooks, a dancer turned movie star whose flapper look defined the Jazz Age. The film only touches upon Brooks’ rise to stardom, though, dedicating more time on a brief moment that led to her big break. This period was also quite monumental for the titular chaperone, who is awakened to the evolving world around her thanks to a little push from Brooks.
Elizabeth McGovern reunites with director Michael Engler and writer Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey to play Norma Carlisle, a wealthy woman from Kansas. Although her life seems ideal on the surface, Norma is trapped in a loveless marriage and wishes she could break free. At the same time, Norma can be resistant towards change, insisting that a proper woman must wear a corset. Upon hearing that a young Louise Brooks requires a chaperone to attend New York’s Denishawn school of Dancing, Norma leaps at the opportunity. Haley Lu Richardson is one of our finest under the radar up-and-comers and she encompasses just the right amount of pluck as Louise.
Their trip to New York results in a clash of contemporary and old-fashioned ideals. Gorgeous, charismatic, and talented, Louise treats the world as if it’s been served to her on a silver platter. Although Louise is high on life, Norma senses that her confidence will ultimately amount to a rude awakening. While Norma has a hard time getting through to her ward, Louise’s thoroughly modern spirit manages to rub off on her guardian. Norma tracks down the New York orphanage where she was given up for adoption as a child, hoping to find her roots. Along the way, she strikes up an unlikely relationship with a handyman named Joseph, played by Géza Röhrig from the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Slowly but surely, it becomes clear to Norma that she can’t keep looking to past, but she may find happiness by embracing the future.
If you’re looking for a traditional biopic about Louise Brooks, The Chaperone doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty. It’s also debatable exactly how much of this is true. In real life, Louise’s chaperone was actually named Alice Mills, a detail that was changed in Laura Moriarty’s novel, which this film is based on. Interestingly, the character was named Cora Carlisle in the book, but since the character is played by McGovern here, perhaps the filmmakers didn’t want audiences to get confused with Cora Crawley. Whether it’s more fact or more fiction, though, The Chaperone does make for delightful storytelling. The dynamics between our main characters are consistently engaging and the performers beam off the screen with chemistry.
Engler and Fellowes have always been drawn to stories about the changing times. The themes of sex, class, and social norms explored in Downton Abbey made it one of the most captivating shows on television during its heyday. The Chaperone doesn’t reach the heights of Downton Abbey’s best seasons, but it does capture much of the same charm and intrigue. At the center of it are two actresses who may come different generations, but are equally matched on the playing field.