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'Downton' Flabby: Period Piece 'The Chaperone' Is A Let-Down

In <em>The Chaperone, </em>Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) seeks a future as a dancer in 1920's New York.
In The Chaperone, Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) seeks a future as a dancer in 1920's New York.

Norma Carlisle, the 1920s Wichita wife and mother played by Elizabeth McGovern in The Chaperone, is literally tight-laced. When the movie opens, she always wears a corset. No prizes for guessing that, before the story ends, Norma will shed the constricting metaphorical garment.

A tale of liberation shackled by leaden writing, The Chaperone offers an entertaining premise, but never renders it very convincing. Scripter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler are Downton Abbey principals, as is McGovern, who's one of the movie's producers. Perhaps their involvement explains why the PBS production looks and feels like a particularly wan made-for-TV production.

The film's historical hook, derived from Laura Moriarty's novel, is the fledgling career of Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), soon to become a silent-film siren. The 16-year-old has been accepted into a New York City dance school, but her father won't let her make the trip without adult supervision. Enter prim and utterly respectable Norma, who's just been enchanted by one of Louise's routines — not the last time McGovern will overplay her delight at the teenager's hoofing or some other performance.

Norma's twin sons have grown into young men, so viewers might initially assume that their mom is simply bored with domestic life when she agrees to escort Louise to Manhattan. In fact, Norma has not one but two hidden agendas, which are revealed in a series of clunky, color-drained flashbacks.

It turns out that the society matron was born down-and-out in New York, and spent her early years there in a nun-run orphanage. When not extricating headstrong Louise from trouble in diners and speakeasies, Norma visits her early-childhood home in hopes of getting information about her birth parents. The head nun says no, but Norma is assisted by the orphanage's easygoing, sensitive, and incredibly helpful janitor, Joseph (Geza Rohrig).

A widower with a young daughter, Joseph would be seem to be the ideal romantic prospect for Norma. But isn't she happily married to a prosperous lawyer (Campbell Scott)? That's where Norma's other secret figures into the plot, leading to a resolution that seems a lot more 2019 than 1922.

The Chaperone touches on various issues of the day, from prohibition, women's suffrage, and race relations — better in New York than in Kansas, we're led to believe — to the internment of German-born Americans like Joseph during World War I. Yet the movie fails to provide a strong sense of either time or place. When Norman and Louise arrive at Penn Station, it looks like they're still in Kansas.

The script doesn't have much to say about Louise Brooks, who exists here primarily as foil for Norma. Richardson is lively and appealing, but the filmmakers don't establish her as anything more than pretty, free-spirited, and compulsively flirtatious. Apparently aware of the thinness of the characterization, Fellowes makes Louise's dance teacher helpfully inform the audience that "the girl's a star."

Not in this movie, she isn't. The Chaperone is about its title character, whose voyage of self-discovery would be more compelling if it were less glib and predictable. While Norma awakens to fresh possibilities, her story remains a snooze.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.