Once upon a time, there was a famous actress named Louise Brooks. This is true. When she wet to New York to study dancing, she was accompanied by a chaperone. This too, seemingly, is true. However, the new film written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler, “The Chaperone,” is based on the historical fiction novel of the same name (by Laura Moriarty) and not the truth of Louise Brooks and her chaperone, Alice Mills.
In fact, it is so not based on the reality of Brooks and her trip to New York that her chaperone’s name here is Norma Carlisle, not Alice Mills. That change may be fine, but whether the story of Brooks’ trip to New York was ever interesting, it is not here. It is, instead, deadly dull, and that is less fine.
The most basic issue with Engler’s film is that it never is able to put an involving spin on what it truly wants to talk about – the difference between generations and people’s differing opinions based upon where they live. So, there is Norma (Elizabeth McGovern), who believes herself to be forward thinking and modern, who, has to deal with Louise (Haley Lu Richardson), who is decades younger and also believes herself to be forward thinking and modern. Despite the fact that they would each label themselves in similar fashion, they are quite different women.
It takes an incredibly long two hours for Norma to realize that she has a way to go in order to be modern, with a large amount of that time spent wheel-spinning. Beyond that, the ways in which Norma struggles to come to grips with modernization are not fully explored. In the film’s rationale, modernization has something to do with Norma not wearing corsets, accepting that her mother didn’t want her, learning to lie even more about her private life in public, not minding others getting drunk during prohibition, finding it okay for Louise to flirt her way to free ice cream, and something ill-defined about racism.
The entirety of this would be head-spinning if it weren’t so dull, but that last one is particularly weird. Norma, when she lives in Wichita, is quite modern and chastises others for thinking of joining the KKK. However, Norma in New York is not modern when she wants to make sure that African Americans don’t get in trouble for sitting in the orchestra at a show (in Kansas, that would be against the law). Norma here is entirely well-meaning and utterly aghast at her making a wrong move and not knowing that the law is different in different states. Is the film then chiding her? It comes off that way, certainly. And, if it’s not chiding her, it’s just another scene which exists for little benefit to the larger whole. We already know how the film feels about the character.
Then again, the clashes between Louise and Norma may make sense at first but quickly cease to benefit the whole as well. This is a pair which at one moment will respect each other deeply and the next will hate everything the other one stands for. It unquestionably mirrors a parent-teenager relationship, but with little result. By the time the film ends, Norma seems to have learned plenty of good lessons and some terrible lessons, while Louise has learned nothing at all.
Just as “The Chaperone” offers minimal insight into Norma and her growth that one can find interesting, it gives little for the audience to grasp onto with Louise. She is a gifted dancer to be sure, and nearly a complete fool in everything else. Yet, the movie would, seemingly, laude her and suggest that Norma’s time with her is valuable because Louise teaches Norma great life lessons.
The relationships and circumstances depicted in the movie may, or may not, be true. Based on a novel and not fact, one shouldn’t expect them to be true. What one ought to expect, however, is for them to be compelling, and they are not. The best thing “The Chaperone” has going for it are the costumes, and while some of them may be great, that isn’t enough to make the endeavor worth one’s time. It is a mixed, muddled message, and the parts that shine through have little to suggest that they are important. There are undoubtedly questions to be asked about modernity at different times and the way perceptions change. “The Chaperone” does not succeed at asking them.
photo credit: PBS Distribution