‘The Chaperone’ introduces a wild young star, then looks elsewhere

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Haley Lu Richardson plays Louise Brooks before her silent-movie fame, when she was an aspiring dancer enjoying New York’s nightlife. | PBS Distribution

It seems like such a lovely idea.

A movie set in the early 1920s, written by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, helmed by Michael Engler (who directed a number of “Abbey” episodes and was behind the camera for the upcoming “Downton” movie) and starring Elizabeth McGovern, who of course played Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, through the entire run of the beloved series.

A reunion of sorts! Splendid.

Alas, the tepid drama titled “The Chaperone” is decidedly less than the sum of its ingredients.

Based on a novel by Laura Moriarty, “The Chaperone” chronicles the journey of the teenage Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) from Wichita, Kansas, to New York, about a half-dozen years before Brooks became a silent film superstar with a famously popular bob haircut.

Sounds like promising material, yes? But the movie is called “The Chaperone,” and sure enough, the bulk of the story centers on McGovern’s Norma, and no offense to Norma and her soap-opera adventures, but nearly every time she takes center stage we’re wondering what the young and wildly talented and also more than a little wild Louise Brooks is up to.

It’s as if the entire movie took a wrong turn early on, and never righted course.

McGovern’s Norma is a prim-and-proper doyenne of upper-middle-class Wichita society who volunteers to accompany the 15-year-old Louse on the train ride to New York, where the budding star will seek to further her dance career. Along the way, Norma scolds Louise to resist temptation, telling her things like, “Men don’t like candy that’s been unwrapped. … It might be clean, but they don’t know where it’s been.”

Prim and proper Nora (Elizabeth McGovern) offers to escort teenage Louise Brooks to New York in “The Chaperone.” | PBS Distribution

Prim and proper Nora (Elizabeth McGovern) offers to escort teenage Louise Brooks to New York in “The Chaperone.” | PBS Distribution

Once we arrive in New York City, we get only the occasional glimpse of Louise’s experiences as the story shifts emphasis to Norma’s quest to learn about her past. Turns out Norma was adopted, and she wants to track down her biological parents.

“I want to find out who I am,” Norma tells the nun at the orphanage where she spent some time before she was adopted.

“You’re a child of God,” says the stern nun.

Not the answer Norma was hoping to hear.

We get some flashback scenes involving Norma’s longtime marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott, who always looks perfectly at home in these period-piece films), in which not all is what it seems. She also develops an unexpected friendship with a German immigrant (Geza Rohrig), and she has a dramatic encounter with a woman named Mary O’Dell (Blythe Danner, laying it on thick with the Irish accent).

It all makes for mildly interesting melodrama, but the only times “The Chaperone” crackles with life is when Norma struggles to contain Louise’s, shall we say, exuberance.

“Please don’t worry about me losing my virginity,” Louise says to a shocked Norma. “I didn’t bring it here. I left it somewhere in Kansas.”

Another time, Norma tracks down Louise at a wild jazz joint, where Louise shoves a drink in her face and says, “Do you like that, Norma! It’s gin, gin is what it is!”

But soon we’re back to Norma’s story, which, alas, is the stuff of run-of-the-mill drama. Despite the best efforts of McGovern et al., “The Chaperone” is lightweight trifle.

‘The Chaperone’


PBS Distribution presents a film directed by Michael Engler and written by Julian Fellowes, based on the novel by Laura Moriarty. No MPAA rating. Running time: 108 minutes. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

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