Early in “The Chaperone,” a young Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) huffs that historical fiction bores her, then promptly spoils the historical fiction novel that Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) is reading. It’s the sort of tongue-in-cheek gag that doesn’t fare so well in Michael Engler’s dry adaptation of Laura Moriarty’s book of the same name, a work of historical fiction that imagines Brooks’ earliest days in New York City through the eyes of her titular chaperone.
While Moriarty’s novel functioned as a compelling story about two women from different backgrounds converging during a pivotal time in American history, Engler’s film turns much of its attention to Norma’s story, jettisoning the very best part of the film along the way. Is Louise Brooks not enthralling enough for her own biopic? Although it’s called “The Chaperone,” the film is illuminated by the full force of Richardson’s charm. A MadLibs-styled mashup of historical drama foisted on a thinly drawn character, for the script from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes nearly makes the case that it’s possible to turn the material into a canny two-hander.
Set in 1922, “The Chaperone” picks up just as young Louise is about to set off to New York City to join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts for essentially a prolonged audition. She’s in need of an adult to ensure things don’t go topside for the starry-eyed Kansas native in the big city (or, at the very least, to keep up appearances), and it’s Norma who jumps at the chance.
While McGovern’s character represents a fictionalized spin on the real-life woman who served as Louise’s NYC chaperone (and who made off with just a single line in one of Brooks’ own autobiographies, little to build a story on), it’s hard to determine why Norma is so intent on taking this vivacious stranger to the big city. Fellowes’ script attempts to allay those questions with a series of revelations: She’s actually from New York City! She was adopted by a nice farming family! Maybe she doesn’t really have a great marriage! The twists stack up, often via shoddy flashbacks (“The Chaperone” isn’t a TV movie, but boy does it look like one), but as they accumulate, the real truth is revealed: Oh, this movie is about Norma.
Which is not to say that Norma doesn’t have an interesting story to tell, one that encapsulates wide-ranging issues such as the use of so-called “orphan trains,” the influence of Prohibition, and an exploration of romantic relationships that were taboo at the time. But put up against not just Louise’s story, but Louise’s story told with the propulsive energy of someone as talented as Richardson, Norma doesn’t stand a chance. Fellowes keeps giving her more issues, but even the ones that seem primed to reveal something fresh and new — a smart nod to the underlying competition between her and Louise, a truly strange mention about the Ku Klux Klan, a zinger about women finally being able to vote — are swiftly swept aside.
Like so many other heroines of historical fiction, Norma is expected to serve as the conduit for a whole swath of major movements and moments. “The Chaperone” is a film that wants to be about so many things, and one that loses both of its leading ladies in the process. They’re not actual characters or people; they are vessels for pieces of history. By the time Norma is essentially gate-crashing a nunnery, and Louise is drinking enough to finally admit a terrible history of abuse, “The Chaperone” has already zipped on to the next (historical!) trauma. A stellar supporting cast helps the proceedings speed along; Géza Röhrig, Blythe Danner, Campbell Scott, and Miranda Otto all get intriguing roles, and they do their best to make them feel rich.
However, even they seems less like an ensemble and more like a distraction. The film is at its best when Richardson and McGovern are allowed to spend time together. From the start, Louise and Norma seem like the only two characters who will actually enjoy being around each other — or, at the very least, the only two who will enjoy challenging each other. Their friction is one borne of strong personalities, and even in the most awkward moments — Louise has a real knack for asking the most prying questions, Norma is aces at looking wholly scandalized by them — their chemistry is winning.
If it’s too much to ask for a Richardson-starring Louise Brooks biopic, is it then too much ask for a true two-hander in which she and McGovern actually share the screen? Apparently, and sadly, yes.
Masterpiece Films will open “The Chaperone” in New York City on Friday, March 29 and in Los Angeles on Friday, April 5, with a national expansion to follow in April and May.