About halfway through its run, Downton Abbey introduced Lady Rose MacClare – played by Lily James – a free-spirit whose attitude clashed with Downton’s household. Rose was a rebel for the 1920s, sneaking off to jazz clubs and drinking, and her character not only showed how stuffy the characters of Downton could be, but presented the idea that the world is changing and in doing so, giving women more power.
Written by Downton creator Julian Fellowes (based on Laura Moriarty’s book of the same name), directed by upcoming Downton Abbey helmer Michael Engler and starring the Countess of Grantham herself, Elizabeth McGovern, The Chaperone attempts to recreate this generational divide for an entire film. The result is something with an unfortunate dual focus: it spends too much time with the stodgy old guard, rather than hang around with the more lively way of the future.
In the early 1920s, Norma (McGovern) is unhappy with her life in Wichita, Kansas. Norma is tired of the stuffy parties, her loveless and disappointing husband (Campbell Scott), and her friends who just casually mention that they’ll planning on joining the Klan. When she overhears that a young dancer by the name of Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) needs a chaperone for a trip to a New York City dance school, Norma jumps at the chance to go somewhere new for a change.
While in New York, Norma attempts to learn more about her childhood, and her time as an orphan at the New York Home for Friendless Girls. There, she meets housekeeper Joseph (Son of Saul’s Géza Röhrig), who helps her discover her past and offers potential for her future. Meanwhile, Louise spends her time outside the dance studio going to clubs and meeting a boy who – much to the chagrin of Norma – gives her free ice cream. As Louise is on her way to becoming a silent film star, Norma is finally on her way to discovering who she really is.
The Chaperone is about as rote of a mismatched duo film as one could imagine. Engler’s direction looks like a made-for-TV film – which makes sense, considering The Chaperone is distributed by PBS – and almost every performance comes off like it’s being played for the stage. While it makes sense that The Chaperone would focus on the film’s actual chaperone, Fellowes’ screenplay makes this choice feel like a missed opportunity for something greater.
McGovern plays Norma with a sort of “gee, shucks!” wide-eyed genteel attitude that is layered on thick. Norma is both adventurous in learning more about herself, but her role towards Louise is more like a scolding mother, warning that men won’t want “the candy if it’s already been unwrapped.” But because The Chaperone focuses on Norma, the film sidelines the genuinely fun and charming performance by Richardson as Louise. There’s a whole world that Louise wants to explore, but instead, the film is stuck digging into Norma’s life. This is done through scattered flashbacks that shed some light on Norma, but could’ve been much more effective if they’d simply come through in Norma’s relationship with Louise.
Even by Downton standards, The Chaperone feels remarkably tame and silly in its attitude. The world is on its way towards change, but Fellowes and Engler remain stuck in the past, which only hurts The Chaperone. If The Chaperone would’ve spend more time allowing Richardson and McGovern to share the screen, and balancing the story between the two, The Chaperone could’ve been more of a lively story, instead of astuffy, bland melodrama.