When Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) leaves Kansas in 1922 to accompany aspiring young dancer Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) to New York in a bid for stardom, her life is changed forever.
Review by Louise Keller: Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes' sharp screenplay is the foundation on which this wonderful story about innocence and dreams is built. Directed by Michael Engler (Downton Abbey, Sex and the City), the narrative traces a chapter in the life of silent screen star Louise Brooks, who at age 16, travels to New York to seek her fortune as a dancer. It is a perfect vehicle for Engler's Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the stitched-up Chaperone of the title. However, it is Hayley Lu Richardson who steals every scene with a luminous performance as the free-spirited Louise. The Roaring Twenties springs to life amid fine production design, a lyrical score, corsets, hats and pearls. Secrets, surprises, love and longing are part of this delightful coming of age story that delivers a glorious twist.
Like Norma Carlisle (McGovern), we are mesmerizedwhen we first see Louise (Richardson) performing a modern dance routine at a private soiree in her mother's Wichita home. She looks like a nymph; dressed like a Greek goddess. We sense there is an underlying reason why Norma volunteers to chaperone the young rebellious dancer; hints of marital discord with her lawyer husband Howard (Tyler Weaks) are apparent. (We discover more in flashback.) The train journey to New York (via Chicago) is the opportunity for getting acquainted and mutual appraisal. Norma's reading The Age of Innocence is a clue; man-magnet Louise is clearly a handful. 'Men don't like candy that's been unwrapped,' Norma tells her young charge.
Miranda Otto is wonderfully cast as the dancing establishment's Miss Ruth, who theatrically expresses her view that dance is a spiritual experience. The expression on her face as she watches her choreographer husband Ted (Robert Fairchild) show more than a fleeting interest in Louise leaves no doubt as to what is going through her mind. Watch how the camera stays sharply in focus on Miss Ruth, as Louise and Ted dance in the foreground. But Ted is not the only one who is taken by Louise. There is a queue waiting, including Floyd (Andrew Burnap), the charming law student who works at the local milk-bar.
The film comes into its own when the focus turns to Norma as she finds her way to New York's Home for Friendless Girls. 'People can surprise you,' says Joseph Schmidt (Son of Saul's Geza Rohrig), the man who fixes things at the Catholic institution. And he does. Surprise and fix things. The Hungarian actor brings gravitas to the role and the film becomes considerably grittier as a result. Watch for the scene with Blythe Danner; she delivers maximum impact within short screen time.
The narrative winds its way naturally to its satisfying conclusion amidst revelations, disappointments and surprising outcomes. This is the age of prohibition and hypocritical moral standards. I love the ending, which goes to show that if you want something badly enough, you must go out and get it. Even if - especially if - you do not take the obvious route. It is a warm and funny, sad and moving tale, scrumptiously depicted and guaranteed to stimulate minds and warm every heart.