The Chaperone (2018)
Fans of period drama will find much to enjoy in The Chaperone (2018). However, those who look for narrative coherence, nuanced characterisation, and casting authenticity, are likely to be disappointed by this film’s unfulfilled potential.
Set in early 1920s America, the story is loosely framed around the life of dancer, movie star, and sex-symbol Louisa Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). We meet her as a precocious 15-year old after she learns that she has been accepted into the avanté garde Denishawn School of Dance in New York. At a soiree performance, her mother expresses concern about securing a chaperone to accompany Louisa to New York, and the socially proper Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) steps forward to offer herself. In a long-term marriage of convenience and with grown-up sons, she wants to use the trip to find her biological mother. Louisa proves to be a handful, and the storyline digresses into her dalliances. Meanwhile Norma enlists the help of orphanage worker Joseph (Géza Rohrig) to search for her mother, and along the way she finds romance as well.
‘Loosely framed’ is the operative term for describing this film. Although told through the eyes of Norma within a 20-year flashback, the role of chaperone drifts into, then out of, the central narrative arc. It more closely resembles a cultural mosaic of early American society, scooping into one pile every public issue that might have been relevant at the time. This includes female suppression and emancipation, the vestiges of slavery and rise of the Klu Klux Klan, virulent homophobia, and the new-wave of modernisation reflected in the sexuality of bob-haired flappers. One of the film’s strengths is how these themes are visually represented on screen, but the shallowness of their treatment and their lack of narrative connection means that the film is nice to look at but goes nowhere in particular.
Weak casting and characterisation are two major distractions that make this film less than satisfying to the critical eye. The 24-year old Haley Lu Richardson has difficulty pulling off the illusion of being 15-year old Louisa; when we meet her again 20 years later, she is even less persuasive. When Norma finds her mother, the reunion is emotionally barren and their apparent age difference implausible. It is difficult to understand why Géza Rohrig is dressed and made up as if he walked straight off the set of the extraordinary Son of Saul (2015), and his voice dubbing is so out of sync he looks like he is mumbling. Fans of Elizabeth McGovern will not forgive this comment, but her limited and imperious expressive range may have worked on Downton Abbey but it struggles here.
Beautiful cinematography and period sets are the film’s redeeming features. Moderately entertaining, if at times melodramatic, it has ample visual pleasures despite a finalé devoid of climactic satisfaction when this too long film simply comes to a halt.
Director: Michael Engler
Stars: Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Géza Rohrig