Review: ‘The Chaperone’ is a Charming But Imperfect Period Drama

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the chaperone movie review

We have a weakness for period dramas, especially when they take place in such a gorgeous and fascinating time and place as New York City in the 1920s. That’s just one of the things The Chaperone (which premiered at the LA Film Festival in September) has going for it. A combination of coming-of-age tale and classic mystery, the film – based on Laura Moriarty’s bestselling novel – reunites the writer (Julian Fellowes), director (Michael Engler), and star (Elizabeth McGovern) of Downton Abbey for a charming, though at times tired and simplistic experience.

The Chaperone follows the rise of silent-film star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). Before Brooks was a famous movie star, she was a dancer with dreams of a bigger life. We meet Louise as a 15-year-old in Kansas who is preparing to spend the summer in New York for a prestigious dance program. Norma (McGovern), the titular character, chaperones the would-be star during her time in the big city while quietly embarking on her own mission to unearth the secrets of her past.

 

The dynamic between the two women is familiar for a coming-of-age drama. Louise is fiery and free-spirited, more than ready to leave her small town in the dust. She owns her talent as a dancer, embraces the attention men give her, and falls in love with the hustle and bustle of New York City.

Norma is also keen to spend the summer in the city, but her personality could not be more opposite of Louise’s. Norma’s role as a chaperone means that she is there to keep Louise in check, and she takes it very seriously. She also insists that Louise maintain good manners and behave as a lady should – which primarily means in an elegant and virginal manner.

The two clash repeatedly but without any real heat as the summer goes on. While Louise gains prowess in her dance program, Norma undertakes a search for her birth parents. We learn Norma’s backstory in bits and pieces through flashbacks – from her life as an orphan left by her mother as a baby to her unhappy marriage. Her journey is one of the more interesting aspects of the film, especially as an unexpected romance emerges with Joseph (Géza Röhrig), a janitor at the orphanage where the nuns have denied Norma’s requests for information about her past.

Beyond the bright spot of the budding relationship between Norma and Joseph, there are enjoyable moments when Louise and Norma are able to appreciate and learn from each other. The two women ultimately change each other for the better, which is satisfying to see. The real highlight, though, is Richardson’s performance. She brings flashes of joy, life, and fire to the film, even in Louise’s stubbornness, arrogance, and determination to make it. Richardson also absolutely shines as a dancer, putting longtime skills to use onscreen.

Ultimately, The Chaperone feels like a TV movie – a perfectly fine and charming experience, but not without its flaws. That said, I will always appreciate projects that put women at the forefront – especially women of different ages and backgrounds, as well as complex female friendships. Here’s hoping this unquestionably talented team gets the chance to bring more of those (and better ones) to our screens soon.

If you missed our interviews with the cast of The Chaperone, check them out here.

The Chaperone will hit theaters in May 2019.




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