In 1922, Wichita, Kansas, native Louise Brooks left her home to study modern dance at the Denishawn School in New York City. Just a few years later, she'd be appearing in Hollywood films. By the decade's end, she'd make two German filmsPandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girlthat left her as one of the most iconic figures in film history.
The new film The Chaperone starts with Brooks' trip to dance school as a jumping-off point, but she is really only a supporting character. Rather, the script focuses on Norma ( Evanston native Elizabeth McGovern ), a Wichita acquaintance of the Brooks family charged with looking after 16-year-old Louise ( Haley Lu Richardson ), who'd already developed into a free spirit long before she left Kansas.
Norma's husband Alan ( Campbell Scott ) is taken aback by her swift decision to make the trip. She has a few ulterior motives; one of them is grabbing the chance to find the identity of her birth mother, and the other is a secret she's long been harboring about Alan. While the story does early on trade in arthouse tropes of free spirits vs. repressed communities steeped in tradition, it allows Norma a sweeping character growth as she discovers more about both her family history and her own emotions.
McGovern occasionally loses control of a rather overdone Midwestern accent, but she is in top form as Normait's nice to see her in a lead role and to see her rejoined with Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, who wrote The Chaperone's screenplay based upon Laura Moriarty's novel. Longtime television veteran Michael Engler directed his actors well; the film's cinematography and scenic design don't do much to actually evoke New York City, however. I'm no expert on 1922, but the sunny skies, clean and wide boulevards and low-rise buildings did not give a sense of Manhattan's scope, even as the characters were marveling at their changed circumstances once they came to the city.
While Louise is pivotal to The Chaperone, this really is Norma's show. Fans of old movies, for example, won't learn much about pansexual actress Brooks that they wouldn't know or assume already. She's mainly the engine to drive Norma's change, a change that is ultimately quite moving and feels honest. The resolution to Norma's story acknowledges both real love and circumstances under which it would be impossible to express it in a community.
McGovern has been a staple in films since her debut in Ordinary People in 1980, but she really attained widespread popularity with Downton Abbey. Fans of that show will not want to miss The Chaperone, not only for the reunion with Fellows, but, if only briefly, to satiate their appetite for the reunion film that's slated for later this year.