Louise Brooks was a star of the silent movie era.

Her fame wasn’t just about her movies; she also had the look of an “it” girl flapper-style – sharply bobbed black hair, a pretty and distinctive face, great figure, danced beautifully and was a true symbol of the jazz age. She didn’t give the impression of a good girl but instead was the girl that so many young American girls, and European girls, wanted to be. Her posters continued to adorn the walls of many a young girl’s bedroom right through to the late 1980s when I had one myself.

The Chaperone is an apocryphal film about the trip Brooks took to New York from Wichita, Kansas. Her mother, an avant-garde concert pianist and father, were happy for her to go to audition for a dance school but wouldn’t allow her to travel without a chaperone. So, middle-aged Wichita mother, Mrs Norma Carlisle, is chosen as her companion. This story focused on what may have transpired on that trip – it was an interesting period for both of them.

The book, written by American writer Laura Moriarty came out in 2012, and I came upon it sometime later. As soon as I read the flyleaf I knew I had to read it, and it was an enjoyable, light, daydream. The film, however, having been given the treatment by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, is far superior.

According to The Chaperone herself, actress Elizabeth McGovern, she was reading the book on the Downton Abbey set, between takes, and asked Fellowes if he was interested in writing the film script. McGovern became one of the film’s producers and Fellowes signed on when the movie was greenlit.

The Chaperone, Elizabeth McGovern. Image via PBS Distribution

The Chaperone, Elizabeth McGovern. Image via PBS Distribution

McGovern and Fellowes have a long experience of working together, McGovern starring throughout Downton Abbey as Lady Grantham. In their latest collaboration, the action has moved from Fellowes’ very English settings to midwest Kansas and 1920s New York. He makes the transition well. With Fellowes in charge of the drama, there are no twee moments or excessive sentimentality. The film tells the story easily, and he treats his viewers as mature and able to be moved with a deft touch.

The Chaperone in the movie seems to have surpassed the role she played in the novel. Louise Brooks becomes less important in the drama. Miranda Otto features as a dance teacher – looking very glamorous in her 20s fashions. Gwyneth’s mum Blythe Danner has a bit part as The Chaperone’s mum. Louise Brooks is played by Haley Lu Richardson, best known for starring in The Edge of Seventeen. In this role, she is perfectly cast as, like Louise, she is a trained dancer. She is the perfect embodiment of youthful possibilities.

The Chaperone, Haley Lu Richardson. Image via PBS Distribution

The Chaperone, Haley Lu Richardson. Image via PBS Distribution

The period setting is perfect, with the costumes a gorgeous selection of corseted and non-corseted flapper wear: Edwardian dress and the unbound 1920s fashion.

As Louise and Norma embark on their train journey to Chicago and New York they begin to learn more about each other and mainly how different they are, how different their lives, hopes and ambitions and opportunities are. When they arrive in New York, they set up in a comfortable, yet constrained relationship, and by the end of their New York sojourn, Louise is on her way to fame and fortune and Norma has loosened the corset that has metaphorically bound her to convention.

The story about these two women gives insight to the place, position and opportunities of women of the era. It’s also a movie about friendship and understanding, and not least about an era that saw incredible change. Fellowes is a specialist in the depiction of changing times, after all it’s what Downton Abbey is all about. It’s a lovely little film. Highly recommended for fans of Downton Abbey, stories about women, and films that make you think.

Feature image via PBS Distribution
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