Looking for Mother
Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) gets the job of chaperone in order to leave Kansas in 1922 and get to New York to find the mother who abandoned her and left her to an orphanage. Norma is fleeing a marriage thrown into chaos by the discovery of her husband (Robert Fairchild) in bed with a man and the revelation that he has been with this lover since before their marriage. He had taken Norma from her from her dead adoptive parent’s home at 16 because her innocence was useful for a man seeking social cover rather than romance.
Norma’s ward is Louise Brooks (Hayley Lu Richardson), the future huge silent movie star. Louise sweeps her way into the New York Denishawn dance academy charming those around her with her free spirit. Not a virgin since before she left her hometown Louise is ready to either shake off her chaperone or get Norma to loosen up and embrace a new world.
At first Norma retreats into moralizing after her recent marital shock. The liberated example of Louise and the obstacles thrown in her path as she tries to find her mother (Blythe Danner) eventually push her to break free. She begins an affair with the man (Geza Tohrig) helping her find the records of her mother. He reawakens her sexuality.
The story is part told in flashbacks but it lets the drama slip through its hands. The infidelity is shown in too short bursts to gain momentum. Issues are raised but never developed. At the beginning acquaintances of Norma mention that they are going to join the Ku Klux Klan but, apart from a raised eyebrow that she gets seated next to a black person in an NYC theater, racism and segregation are not dealt with. Prohibition flies by and homophobic violence gets treated like an inconvenience. The issues are there but they are not developed.
The ending is something of surprise because Norma radically knits together a new kind of family life that includes her gay husband, his lover and her own but it is hard to believe that the lukewarm characters can make this happen. Despite McGovern’s mild, glassy eyed acting and that there is scant evidence that Louise will a great performing talent.
Michael Engler directed “The Chaperone” from a screenplay by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes who adapted it from a novel. But Fellowes who was able to conquer television with six years of “Downton Abbey,” is not so successful here, It seems Fellowes doesn’t exactly want to leave such success behind and once again returns to the Jazz Age but in America, highlighting the development of future film star Louise Brooks as she enjoys her first taste of popularity during a key trip to New York City. Fellowes even brings in Elizabeth McGovern to star in the picture, which inspires one of the best performances from the actress, who really digs in deep here while the rest of “The Chaperone” isn’t all that committed to emotional depth.
“The Chaperone”, at first, seems like lighter fare, but it grows heavy, dealing directly with Norma’s loneliness and the exploitation of Louise, which would eventually drag her through a Hollywood career. McGovern is the best thing about “The Chaperone,” leading it through some lackluster breakdown scenes. Fellowes is ultimately making a movie about Louise Brooks and the first steps of her career, but Norma is always the most interesting person in the frame, and McGovern’s a good reason to stay with the film.