Admittedly, most of the people who go to see The Chaperone probably don’t know much about the pre-fame life of silent film star Louise Brooks (played here by Haley Lu Richardson, most recently seen in Five Feet Apart). Writer and “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes (adapting the book by Laura Moriarty) has created yet another nuanced period tale about Brooks’ teenage years as a dancing student from Wichita, Kansas, who is accepted to a prestigious dance academy in New York City for training and the chance at joining the troupe led by a couple played by Miranda Otto and Robert Fairchild. But in order for her to be allowed to make the journey, she must find a chaperone. It just so happens society matron Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) is looking for an excuse to take time off from her lawyer husband (Campbell Scott) and her now-grown twin sons, if only for a few weeks.
Not surprisingly, Louise is a bit of a free spirit and looks for any opportunity to escape her chaperone and explore New York, but as the two become closer, they begin to enjoy moving through the city together. While Louise is in her classes, part of Norma’s ulterior motive for wanting to come to the city becomes clear: she was raised in an orphanage in New York and is interested in finding out who her birth mother is. The nuns that run the “home for friendless girls” are no help, but a kindly handyman named Joseph (Son of Saul’s Géza Röhrig), who also is a German immigrant with a daughter in the orphanage, is willing to help Norma get the information she needs.
Introductory text tells us that within just a couple of years of the events depicted in The Chaperone, Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box) became one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and it’s clear from her behavior in New York that her mission went beyond dancing and was more aimed at devouring and conquering the world. But the film spends more time with Norma’s situation and eventual love affair with Joseph, meaning we lose sight of Louise and her dancing and acting talents in the height of the jazz-age (which spawned her to get a haircut that was one of the more copied in the world soon thereafter). When both women do get together, they share stories of the sometimes unbearable lives they lived in Kansas, not looking forward to ever returning.
Any shortcomings in the focus of the film (directed by first-time feature filmmaker Michael Engler, who is a veteran television helmer of such series as “30 Rock,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) is balanced out by the winning performances of the two leads, who clash as beautifully as they bond. Neither of their stories seems essential as a record of Hollywood history, but combined there’s something captivating as the film weaves tales of lost innocence and shifting morals (Prohibition was going strong at the time, but it was clear it was on the way out). Not the strongest of the week’s offerings, but if you’re looking for something a little different and like a good period piece, you could do worse.
The film opens today for weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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