It’s no coincidence that Elizabeth McGovern stars in The Chaperone, with a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, whose hit TV series Downton Abbey brought McGovern back to the attention of American audiences. But it was McGovern who recruited Fellowes to the project, not the other way around. The actress had been tapped to perform the audiobook of the Laura Moriarty novel on which the film is based, and her determination to turn it into a movie brought the collaborators together again. (It took more than five years.)
You can see what attracted McGovern to this story of Norma, a frustrated woman from Wichita, Kansas, society who escapes her comfortable but strained life by accompanying a teenager to New York City as her chaperone. It’s 1922, and the 16-year-old just happens to be Louise Brooks, on the cusp of silent movie stardom.
The movie follows the journey of both women, and it’s most interested in how Norma’s uptight mores and Louise’s adventurousness clash and combine. Louise is heading to New York for a tryout with the modern Denishawn dance company; Norma wants to discover the identity of the birth parents who gave her up for adoption as a toddler.
The implication is that Louise learns vital life skills from Norma, while Norma learns from Louise than her own happiness may require the loosening of her stiff morality. Her marriage is unhappy for reasons that are only gradually revealed, and the introduction of a kind Eastern European handyman (Géza Röhrig) goes pretty much as you might expect.
McGovern is as captivating as always, and as Louise, Haley Lu Richardson (Five Feet Apart) is sweet, although without the haunting screen presence of the real Miss Brooks. Supporting roles are ably handled by Campbell Scott (the inconstant husband), Miranda Otto (Ruth St. Dennis), Blythe Danner (a vivid cameo) and others.
The Chaperone was produced by PBS and helmed by frequent Downton Abbey director Michael Engler, so it has a sensibility closer to a classy TV movie than to a more nuanced indie drama. Everything and everyone is exactly as they appear, and all conflicts can be neatly resolved. Fellowes’ screenplay is smart and has some genuinely poignant moments, but it’s not a deep dive into 1920s feminism, as McGovern may have hoped. It’s a good, diverting soap opera.
Grade: B. Not rated, but PG-13 equivalent.
(Photo: Karin Catt/PBS Distribution)