January 13, 2020  (Web Review)

The Chaperone

PBS, 110 min., not rated, DVD: $24.99, Nov. 26

Reviewer rating: 2.5/4

Actress Louise Brooks led a fascinating life, but she is a secondary character in Michael Engler’s film, which was written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. This solid if also somewhat stolid period drama is set in the early 1920s, with Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) then a 15-year-old dance prodigy in Wichita, KS. When Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) learns that Louise’s parents are looking for an older woman to serve as the girl’s companion on a trip to New York for an audition at a prestigious dance school, she applies for the job, despite protestations from her husband (Campbell Scott). And after Louise is asked to join the school’s company, Norma remains on as her chaperone. Norma finds it difficult to put up with her charge’s recklessness, especially because her attention is diverted by a desire to get information about her own birth parents at the Catholic orphanage where she was adopted. Here, Norma is helped by and attracted to kindly immigrant janitor Joseph (Géza Röhrig)—an understandable development, since her marriage is something of a sham. Under Engler’s static direction, the film coasts along at a stately pace, defined by McGovern’s highly controlled performance as a somewhat prissy woman whose hidebound sense of conformity is challenged by her feelings. Ultimately, The Chaperone tells the story of Norma’s gradual liberation from the stuffy conventions of the early 20th century, becoming a modern feminist fable in which Brooks’s history merely serves as a warning that adopting progressive tendencies can come at a cost. A strong optional purchase. (F. Swietek)