Elizabeth McGovern, Hayley Lu Richardson, Geza Rohrig, Miranda Otto
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…ultimately feels “classy” rather than truly engrossing.
If you like period drama, then you may be drawn to The Chaperone. It is set in 1920s America, and director Michael Engler (Downton Abbey) certainly relishes the sense of period. Great clothes and cars and décor do go a long way. Of course, this was an attractive time with the dizzy new Jazz Age blowing away the post-Edwardian stiffness. This is also the run up to The Golden Age of Hollywood, when a silent star could get their face emblazoned on countless magazines and billboards.
One of the most iconic was Louise “Lulu” Brooks (here played with gusto by rising young talent Hayley Lu Richardson from Five Feet Apart). Brooks was a showgirl and dancer who signed for Paramount at a tender age. She had talent, and was a lot more than just her famous killer bobbed haircut (although, as the film reminds us, her look was faithfully imitated by so many young women of the era). She also had a smouldering quality which the studio knew how to exploit. In fact, her film career ended sadly, but the film doesn’t really go there.
But The Chaperone is not solely the story of Brooks. It comes at it all more obliquely by making half the emphasis fall on Norma (Elizabeth McGovern), a straight-laced woman from Kansas who volunteers to be Brooks’ chaperone in New York. At first, Norma takes her chaperoning role over-seriously. She offers maiden aunt style advice to the provocative Lulu, telling her that “men don’t like candy that has been unwrapped.” Lulu has no intention of letting such stuffiness get in the way of a good time, and pretty soon she is sneaking out at night to live it up at the local jazz club.
As implied above, Julian Fellowes’ script (adapted from a novel by Laura Moriarty) steers us to concentrate upon the inner changes for the chaperone. Norma was put out for adoption as a baby and is desperate to trace her origins. She meets a worker at her old orphanage called Joseph (the wonderful Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig, here given a part too slight for him really) and a shy romance begins between them.
McGovern (who worked with both director and scriptwriter on Downton Abbey, of course) is a durable and always-watchable actress. She imbues Norma with an intriguing combination of the fragility of a repressed person and the imminence of a flower waiting to bloom.
Despite some very well written scenes, the film ultimately feels “classy” rather than truly engrossing. Also, there is something a little willful about bypassing the most interesting part of the story to concentrate upon the support player. Perhaps this is Fellowes’ point; that the lives of the servants are as interesting as those in the limelight (he certainly did that with his screenplay for Gosford Park), but somehow here it is like making a Sherlock Holmes film and making it all about Watson.