“The Chaperone” is the latest film from directors Michael Engler and Julian Fellowes, who add to their respective oeuvres this girl-moves-to-the-city period piece. Stripping away the fun 1920s costumes and set designs, however, leaves a fairly flat film that is less of a lesson in history or character building and more of a lost, Americanized version of “Downton Abbey.”
The film is a loosely based retelling of the life of Louise Brooks, an actress and dancer who rose to fame in the 1920s as a company member with the Denishawn School of Dancing. Much like its name, this is a restrained, chaste and safe film that gets the job done in terms of recreating period details, but adds little in terms of understanding the era.
Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora of Downton Abbey, mind you) plays Norma Carlisle, a plucky, dissatisfied Wichita housewife looking to find herself outside of her unhappy marriage. After a secret is revealed in her family, she fortuitously comes across Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) who is heading to New York. Louise is in need of a chaperone for the journey and Norma, looking to escape her life in Wichita, at least for the time being, offers up her services.
So begins a typical fish-out-of-water, odd couple sort of narrative. Louise and Norma initially butt heads, clashing in their ideas about womanhood, independence and the future. Louise embodies everything about the progressive roaring twenties, from her short bobbed haircut to her closet full of flapper dresses, while Norma is stuck in the past, corseted in an antiquated and provincial way of life. They both, however, come to appreciate each other and adopt some of their counterparts’ views as they navigate the big city.
McGovern plays Norma with a wide-eyed naivete that convincingly develops into self-confidence. Richardson as Louise, by contrast, is both bratty and charming, taking in her life on a silver platter as opportunities spring up for her one by one. They each fit neatly into their molds as the matron and the ingenué, but do little to subvert their respective tropes. Both are also strangely optimistic, constantly seeming as if they’re about to say something along the lines of, “Oh, golly, life is grand, isn’t it?”
In this way, the film falls into a flat sort of niceness, never reaching any dramatic peaks or real moments of tension. There are the nice period set designs, nice costumes and a nice romance that blossoms between Norma and Joseph (Géza Röhrig), a man she meets while trying to find her birth mother. As nice as these things may be, however, they don’t do much beyond ticking off enough boxes to achieve an apathetic charm.
Though generally lacking substance, “The Chaperone” also falters when it tries to step outside of its neatly packaged storyline. The film attempts to incorporate a few moments of social commentary, but these instances feel forced and don’t actually add anything to the conversation. There are a few pointed moments of racial tension that are swept to the side as Norma learns how to not be racist. This ultimately relegates the role of characters of color to help this white lady on her own personal journey to become a better person. Race isn’t the only heavy topic quickly brushed over in the film, though. Plotlines dealing with queer identity and sexual assault are also mentioned and quickly forgotten.These could have been opportunities to expand the scope of the film, but its treatment of these issues rather pigeonholes them further into irrelevancy.
When it comes down to it, is this a story that really needed to get told? Maybe not. At its best, this film is a minor significant period piece with some nice moments depicting the roaring 1920s. At its worst, it’s another lukewarm addition to a genre that has enough of these stories at hand.