Movie Review: The Chaperone (2018)

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Following up her effervescent turn as an unfailingly optimistic waitress in a dead-end job in Support the Girls with a high profile turn as cinema's original It Girl, Louise Brooks in The Chaperone, actress Haley Lu Richardson shines so brightly she nearly glows opposite Elizabeth McGovern in this delightful, feminist adaptation of Laura Moriarty's bestselling novel.

A buoyant ensemble picture, reminiscent of her experience with the great Regina Hall in Girls, once again, Richardson's innate warmth and generosity of spirit help springboard The Chaperone's McGovern from start to finish thanks to their terrific chemistry. And although it's Richardson who drives a majority of The Chaperone's narrative forward when fifteen-year-old Wichita native Louise Brooks is invited to New York for the summer to join the prestigious Denishawn dancers, it's her fictional chaperone Norma Carlisle’s story all the way.

To help bring the lovable Norma to life, veteran star and first time producer Elizabeth McGovern — who purchased the rights to Moriarty’s novel after initially being hired to perform it as an audiobook — teamed up with her Downton Abbey colleagues, screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler for a 1920s period picture set on this side of the pond.

Reeling from a betrayal in her twenty-five year marriage to her husband played by Campbell Scott — which Fellowes brilliantly teases out in a series of flashbacks cut into the film by editor SofĂ­a Subercaseaux throughout the first three acts of its running time — Norma impulsively volunteers to chaperone Louise for the summer after seeing her dance.

Leaving her grown, supportive sons and hesitant husband behind for what we discover is the city of her birth, it's only after the flirtatious Louise and cautious housewife settle into New York that we deduce that Norma has another reason she wanted to head back east as she tries to solve a mystery that's haunted her for years.

Having been married at roughly Louise's age, while admittedly McGovern is a tad too old for the role since simple movie math tells us that Norma is supposed to be forty-one years old (in an error that could've been easily fixed in the script), she's marvelous as a woman whose own naivete with men, romance, and sexuality get put to the test over one memorable summer.

Yet still, much as the silent film star turned writer Louise Brooks did in her real life, it's scene-stealing Richardson's Louise who holds us most in thrall. Whether she's dancing up a storm or rationalizing her right to free ice cream, Richardson matches the highs and lows of a youthful Louise whose emotions change on a dime, subtly trading the role of mentor and mentee with Norma throughout.

A Masterpiece Films production, although at times, The Chaperone feels like an American set companion piece to the smash PBS series Downton Abbey or at the very least something to tide us over before the eponymous big screen feature will be released this fall — once again directed by Engel, written by Fellowes, and starting McGovern — it's a downright entertaining, feminist, refreshing morsel all the same.

Sure to attract fans of not only Abbey but also I Capture the Castle and Chocolat, while, most likely due to its rushed twenty-one day production schedule and lack of supporting character development, The Chaperone doesn't work quite as well as those films, its message of friendship and female empowerment make it particularly welcome in today's climate, as yet another reminder to Support the Girls indeed.

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