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Chaperone, The (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Slight, but with two very charming performances."
4 stars

"The Chaperone" is cheerier and more effervescent than it sometimes seems like it should be; it tells the story of a woman who finds happiness and otherwise makes a less-than-ideal situation better in small, pragmatic ways in a way that's faithful to its 1922 setting despite the modern instinct to want more confrontation and a sharper edge. This movie is pleasant and accommodating even when it seems like it maybe shouldn't be, but that's hardly a mark against it - it's a modestly delightful story that makes a virtue out of finding the best way to look at difficult situations.

It starts in Wichita, Kansas, with the aptly-named Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) attending a charity event with her husband Alan (Campbell Scott). The first piece of entertainment is pianist Myra Brooks (Victoria Hill) playing while her teenage daughter Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) dances. Both are talented, with Louise accepted to study at a prestigious group in New York City, though her parents are reluctant to send her away without a chaperone - it's not hard to see that she has the potential to be more trouble than even the average 16-year-old. Norma volunteers, which seems unusually impulsive, but it turns out she's got her own reasons - she was born there, but adopted by midwestern farmers at the age of three, and is looking to track down her birth parents. The nuns at the "House for Friendless Girls" are not much help, but German handyman Joseph (Géza Röhrig) is taken with her and helps her sneak into the records room.

The filmmakers appear to take some liberties with Laura Moriarty's novel, which in turn likely takes some liberties with Louise Brooks's life; someone coming to this film on the promise of one of this decade's most interesting young actresses playing one of the silent era's should probably take note of the title. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler put enough of that in to that this part of the audience won't feel short-changed, but mostly they focus on Norma and her sort of coming-of-middle age story. Her name has been changed from "Cora" for the film, presumably to underline how she enters the film taking a lot for granted - about her home life, the good intentions of her neighbors, her own history. The story throws challenges to her orderly, proper life.

The way she handles it is what makes Norma interesting and admirable; the filmmakers will often short-circuit expectations a bit by having her react well, rather than presenting her as someone with a lot of entrenched bad habits that need to be unlearned. Actress Elizabeth McGovern finds the spot where the character's seeming lack of sophistication is borne of kindness and has room for curiosity, not quite concealing a sharp mind that may not always run like the viewers', but unfailingly goes in the right direction. Norma's choices, as the film go on, are sometimes mild even when eyebrow-raising, and sometimes understated to the point of disappointment. It's charming, and likely plays to the hopes of the older-skewing art-house audience for this movie, that they would have been the open-minded Norma in this period, and that these small steps help change the world.

Of course, what the movie also points out is that it can't just be small steps by the comfortable - Alan must lay something out very plainly to Norma at one point, and while Louise may often be a brat, she pushes Norma in ways others don't. Haley Lu Richardson has a heck of a challenge in the part, and not just because Richardson has some big shoes to fill; she's absolutely the right person to play young Louise Brooks. The character is just secondary enough in the story that she can seem too casually modern or have the mix of sophistication and innocence shift from one scene to the next (although that's kind of just being a teenager). She's reliably great in the part, though, capturing both the sheer charisma and keen intelligence that made Brooks a prototypical flapper, huge star, and serious actress in her relatively short career, and doing so in a sort of larval form

They're a delightful pair, even if it comes as much from friction as being on the same wavelength, and able to pivot to unstated understanding and respect. Though the film doesn't always have the same scale as a bigger production, it impressively uses their reactions to make 1922 New York bigger and more full of possibility than where they came from, and captures how the bustle of a big city can electrify a newcomer. There's an impressive ensemble beyond the leads, giving charming, squared-away performances.

"The Chaperone" is slight in a few ways; it's very much a PBS "Masterpiece" presentation that made its way to the big screen, well-done but not necessarily daring. It's a nice, charming little movie, doing what it does well without getting in the audience's face about it.

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originally posted: 04/18/19 10:26:35
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  29-Mar-2019 (NR)


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