The Chaperone is the first major theatrical film release from PBS Distribution, best known up until now for home video releases. One can understand why this was the first project selected for it. Adapted and written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame from the novel by Laura Moriarty, it is directed by Michael Engler (also of Downton Abbey fame). It stars Elizabeth McGovern, who is currently best known for her turn in Downton Abbey as American heiress Cora Crawley.
Set in the same era as the beloved PBS show, The Chaperone follows the story of budding silent-era film star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), who leaves Wichita for New York City in the company of Norma Carlilse, a middle-class married matron who acts as her chaperone. As Brooks goes on to take the town by storm on her way to Hollywood, Norma goes on her own journey of self-discovery. Fellowes' penchant for finding older female talent and writing them brilliant characters to play (as he's previously done with Maggie Smith, and now seems intent on doing with McGovern) would make this sound like a sure-fire bet for PBS Distribution to lead off a move to the big screen. How could it possibly fail?
Unfortunately, the film has not caught fire the way some might have hoped. The Chaperone's run in theaters back in March was startlingly brief, especially compared to the Downton Abbey movie (which is still running over two months after its initial reliease). Its Rotten Tomatoes score gives it a 43% splat from critics. It's been available to stream via PBS Passport since August, and this weekend, it finally aired on Masterpiece itself.
The fault cannot be said to be with the show's stars. McGovern and Richardson, as Norma and Louise, make for a sharp pairing. Their chemistry as the older woman with conventional sensibilities and the young firecracker hellbent on kicking down every door carries quite a bit of the film. Richardson herself is a revelation as Brooks, a figure worthy of her own biopic. Sexually abused as a child, treated like garbage by her parents, Brooks blazed a trail through New York and Los Angeles, defined what most of us picture when someone says the "flapper era," and single-handedly started the bobbed-hair craze. (When Lady Mary gets her hair bobbed in Downton Abbey Season 5, the reason is Louise Brooks.) But like most young women of the silver screen, Brooks lived fast and crashed out young. By the time she was in her early 30s, she was a complete has-been, a persona non-gratis in Hollywood. But instead of drugging and drinking herself to death, she kept on, and by the time she passed away in 1985, she had reinvented herself as an author.
And McGovern does all she can with her fictionalized chaperone character. But that's where things go off the rails.
Norma is conceived as a woman with secrets. She was put in a catholic orphanage as a child in NYC, adopted out to Kansas farmers (this was a real practice), married to an older wealthy lawyer at 16, and now lives a stifling life in the mid-west. But where Fellowes has a real feel for English country life and New York City of the period, his imagination falls painfully flat when it comes to Middle America. From the first early conversation with neighbors where Norma finds herself shocked when they declare they are "joining the Klan" (as in, Ku Klux) to the weird "It's 1922 mom, women can vote now!" convo with her sons, everything feels off. And that's before the show gets into Norma's real issues.
Moriarty's novel is a story about how women are oppressed by being kept ignorant of the world. Norma's mother, Mary O'Dell (Blythe Danner), when she turns up, admits she had no idea how body functions worked, let alone how to prevent pregnancy. Like many women of the time, she shed her child to live a good life. Like Norma, she too is married into the middle class, has sons and daughters who are successful, and in no way wishes to upset that apple cart by ever admitted Norma existed. Norma also lives a painfully repressed life. The much older lawyer who married her did so because she wouldn't question why he had no physical interest in her, and preferred the company of one of his (male) law school friends of decades instead. This is a story of how she comes of age in her mid-40s, inspired and driven by seeing the world outside her sheltered existence for the first time.
But all this is glossed over in the film in favor of giving Norma a wish-fulfillment existence when she meets Joseph (Géza Röhrig), a German immigrant whose life was destroyed by the War, and who becomes her lover. It is far more interested in letting Norma defy conventions (and let her husband ultimately do the same) in an ending where everyone seems to be happily living under one roof with their respective partners, and no one bats an eyelash. It's cute, sure, but it also ignores a lot of realities of the time and place. And worst of all, in doing so, it abandons Richardson's Brooks, who is left to fall apart and put herself back together offstage, treated more as a plot catalyst for someone else's journey when the character deserves so much more.
On top of that, this is a film that looks and feels like a PBS TV film. That's not a knock on it if one is watching it on TV. But there are issues with The Chaperone, especially in sound and visual quality, that aren't noticeable on smaller screens that make the film feel not-ready-for-prime-time on a bigger one. It's as if one took an episode of Poldark and put it in the movie house. It just feels off.
As a Masterpiece one-and-done movie of the week, The Chaperone would have been perfectly passible fare, as long as one didn't think too hard about it. Perhaps, like Gosford Park was for Fellowes and Smith, it could have been a step in a new direction that might ultimately morph into a genuine hit series. As a big-screen film, it's an unfortunate blip. But as a casual Sunday night offering, it's a great way to enjoy McGovern and Richardson, if only for a little while.