Film review: ‘THE CHAPERONE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

The Chaperone is a charming but underweight and oddly creaky story of self-discovery and the emergence of a star amid the rapidly changing world of 1920’s America.

The chaperone of the title is Norma Carlisle (Downtown Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern) a rather prim and proper woman from Kansas who surprisingly offers to chaperone 15-year-old Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) while she attends a dance academy in New York. The trip opens the good natured but school ma’amish, prohibition-supporting Norma to a new world of free-spirited people, not the least of which is her precocious and flirtatious teenage charge Louise.  The trip also offers Laura, who was orphaned and fostered out as a child, the chance to explore her family history and possibly find her birth mother.

Oddly, the film focuses on the character of Norma rather than Louise who became a film star and appeared in a couple of silent classics, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. This is a loss, particularly for film buffs as we see almost none of Brooks during her film career. Much of The Chaperone focuses on of Norma and Louise’ relatively benign conflicts as the youngster flouts Norma’s rules and mocks her old-world, mid-west values before an inevitable thawing in their relationship. The film also looks at Norma’s fraught marriage, the resolution of which provides one of the film’s rare surprises.

Norma, as played by McGovern, is amiable and sympathetic but not especially interesting; she simply doesn’t produce a lot of dramatic tension either in her conflict with Louise or her burgeoning romance with a German handyman Joseph (Geza Rohrig from the remarkable Son of Saul). Richardson is more compelling as the unpredictable and often intellectually arrogant Brooks.

Revered English scriptwriter Julian Fellowes fashions some amusing exchanges in this film but it’s all a little too restrained – even a confrontation in a speakeasy ends with a whimper.

Director Michael Engler is a TV veteran and has his fingerprints on most of the major TV shows of the 2000’s including Downton Abbey and 30 Rock. He’s actually slated to direct the Downton Abbey movie. Unfortunately, he brings a little too much of that low-key TV aesthetic to this film as it lacks historical spectacle and disturbingly features some very fake-looking effects and backdrops.

The Chaperone is perfectly pleasant viewing but it’s ultimately an underwhelming experience.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Biopic/ historical drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Michael Engler.

Release date: 18th Apr 2019.

Running time: 103 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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