Director: Michael Engler
Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes, based on the eponymous novel by Laura Moriarty.
Haley Lu Richardson
Country: UK /USA/Australia
Runtime: 103 mins.
Australian release date: 25 April 2019
Previewed at: Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park, on 25 April, 2019.
Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Moriarty, this bildungsroman has been beautifully adapted for the screen by Julian Fellowes (aka The Right Honourable Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, Conservative Peer of the House of Lords) and it reunites him with a fellow Downton Abbey alumnus, Elizabeth McGovern. The actress, one of the film’s co-producers and stars, approached Fellowes after reading the novel and becoming enthralled by the unusual story, a coming-of-age narrative not about an ingénue but, rather, a woman in her middle-age. Set in 1922, The Chaperone is a revealing study of a period when American women were just beginning to assert themselves after national suffrage was established in 1920. It was a time when they were finally able to loosen their corsets, so to speak, and begin to feel free.
Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), a bourgeois woman in a loveless marriage in provincial Wichita, Kansas, applies to chaperone a 15-year-old up-and-coming dancer, Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), on a trip to New York. (Yes, that Louise Brooks, who went on to become the famous star of silent movies like Pandora’s Box and others). Encouraged by her free-spirited mother Myra (Australian actress Victoria Hill, also a co-producer), young Louise is auditioning to study modern dance at the Denishawn School, run by the stern and severe Ruth St. Denis (another Aussie thespian, Miranda Otto). Louise is progressive and modern in her attitude to life, so is perceived as being quite precocious and bold; in other words, quite a handful. Norma is much more reserved, having married young, but has taken on the journey to try and find out about her own past, which is shrouded in mystery. During their summer sojourn in the Big Apple, both women discover things about themselves that will change their lives forever.
This is a surprising story, beautifully executed by director Michael Engler, whose prolific background in television led him to directing four episodes of Downton Abbey, plus the forthcoming spin-off movie. Both McGovern and Richardson are compelling. Being opposites, it is interesting to view how these women take control of their destinies while learning to respect each other’s views, even if their relationship is fraught at times. Engler explains, “The film shows the ways in which women have always had to rely on one another, becoming the mothers and sisters each other need to fulfil their dreams in a world controlled by men. It is the story of two women who couldn’t be more different from each other, pushing and supporting one another toward self-actualization.” As it unfolds, the script becomes darker and the complexities deeper and it throws up many unexpected twists and turns. Géza Röhrig, the star of the Oscar-winning Hungarian film Son Of Saul from 2015, and Campbell Scott have interesting roles as another pair of diametric opposites, the men who feature in Norma’s life. Both are excellent.
Lovers of Downton Abbey will not want to miss The Chaperone. The 1920s setting is beautifully encapsulated and Old New York never looked finer. The production design and costumes (and hats, lots of hats) are wonderful and Adelaide-raised cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews brings it all together well. (NB. Matthews was also responsible for filming the recent Australian flick Hotel Mumbai, a film that deserved to be more widely seen). Despite the period setting, much of The Chaperone can be regarded as dealing with attitudes that are still prominent today. Engler opines, “I believe the central relationship in this story is an important one to portray right now in the midst of the current dialogue within our culture between women, and women and men, about the necessity of women to define and determine their own self-expression, sexuality, and identity.” He’s right about that and this film is a thoroughly entertaining way to examine the issue.