directed by Michael Engler
A Downton Abbey-drenched drama about the early life of Louise Brooks makes for a tolerable talkie.
She was an enigmatic screen presence and her films were the last great gasp of the silent era. Viewers of the time were sent into paroxysms of lusty admiration: “the perfect incarnation of that which is photogenic”, “a magical presence, a real phantom, the magnetism of the cinema” who could cause a “work of art to be born by her mere presence”. For the critic Kenneth Tynan, even a glance at Brooks’ famous razored black bob would ring “a peal of bells in my subconscious”.
The Chaperone tells the story of Brooks’ first brush with the high life, an imperious teenager (Haley Lu Richardson) released from genteel Kansas to the wilds of New York to study dance. The only catch was custom: she had to be accompanied by a minder – a housewife named Norma (Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey), who is charged with keeping Louise’s “candy” thoroughly “wrapped”.
The writer is Julian Fellowes, also ex-Downton stock, and you can tell we’re headed for a clash of social mores, a contest between old money and new and East and West Egg. Except that The Chaperone starts wandering off distractedly into the distance as Norma embarks on one of those voyages of self-discovery and forbidden romance.
Make no mistake, McGovern is great in the role, with her down-home Wichita vowels and unravelling puritan morals, determined to flesh out a hollow character. It’s just that Norma’s story – invented from scratch in Laura Moriarty’s original novel – is far less interesting than whatever young Louise is getting up to (wooing milk-bar waiters and skipping school for speakeasies, mostly).
Perhaps ironically, The Chaperone is also a bit too concerned with holding our hand through this raucous period. Any flash of rebellion has been reined in, and the film’s beige and formal style is often stifling.
But Richardson is a dead ringer for Brooks, and her performance is impishly precocious. In her few scenes, the film finally catches alight, and you relish the chance to see her trying on the attitudes and affectations (and hairstyle) that will later make Brooks iconic.
IN CINEMAS NOW
Video: STUDIOCANAL New Zealand
This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.