A former bank robber (Paul “Triple H” Levesque) skips out on one last job for the gang so that he can accompany his daughter (Ariel Winter) on a field trip.
Initial release: April 18, 2019 (USA)
Director: Stephen Herek
Box office: 14,400 USD
Initial DVD release: March 8, 2011
Language: English Language
Written by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, “The Chaperone” appears to be targeting men and women above the age of 60. And while that’s a demographic as worthy of attention as any, those same viewers deserve a theatrical experience that doesn’t feel created for small-screen tidiness and flatness.
Adapted from Laura Moriarty’s best-selling novel, “The Chaperone” follows the rise of silent-film star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). But before acting, it was dancing, first in Kansas, where Louise was born and raised, and then in New York City. The film spends most of its time on Louise’s summer adventure in the big city, where she is accompanied by Norma (Elizabeth McGovern), the titular caretaker.
Their dynamic is probably what you expect from a coming-of-age period drama: Louise is young and free-spirited, eager to be away from her cookie-cutter small town. She’s a skilled dancer and knows it. Each day New York makes more and more sense to her. The hustle and bustle is comforting. She believes prohibition is nonsense and enjoys the attention men (of all ages) give her.
Among the most awe-inspiring tools in an actor’s arsenal is the ability to convey the wholeness of one’s inner life in a single glance. Both Elizabeth McGovern and Haley Lu Richardson are endowed with this gift, which makes the very notion of them teaming up for a feature instantly enticing. They each made their first big screen appearances at age 19, with McGovern achieving instant stardom as Jeannie, the girlfriend of a troubled teen, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), in Robert Redford’s 1980 masterpiece, “Ordinary People.” It’s a role I could easily envision Richardson mastering as well, considering her own indelible showcase in another sublime directorial debut, Kogonada’s 2017 triumph, “Columbus,” where she also forges a tender bond with a man harboring familial scars.
Despite McGovern’s limited screen time, she and Richardson proved equally deft at ensuring that their characters emerged as fully realized beings rather than mere sounding boards for their male co-stars. When Jeannie’s earnest heart-to-heart with Conrad is disrupted by a raucous gang of jocks, her first impulse is not to jeer at them with idealized heroism, but to laugh in embarrassment, a far more human and painfully relatable response. The lingering look she gives her visibly hurt date during their tense car ride home is a classic example of how intricately nuanced silence can speak more volumes than limitless reams of prose ever could.
With these two top-drawer talents anchoring Michael Engler’s “The Chaperone,” one expects the picture to be terrific, and for the majority of its running time, it does not disappoint. Adapted by Julian Fellowes from the bestselling book by Laura Moriarty, this handsomely mounted production initially resembles the sort of sentimentalized historical fiction that would’ve likely tested the patience of its own real-life heroine, silent screen icon Louise Brooks (Richardson). During one of her earliest interactions with Norma Carlisle (McGovern), the Wichita housewife who volunteers to accompany her on a pivotal cross-country trip circa 1922, Brooks ridicules The Age of Innocence for romanticizing its protagonist’s choice to remain in quiet desperation rather than pursue his dreams. I have no doubt Brooks would’ve been equally baffled by Glenn Close’s titular heroine in Björn Runge’s “The Wife,” who chooses to live in her husband’s shadow, despite her formidable talents.