I've been infatuated with silent film star Louise Brooks ever since I was a teenager. Incredibly, for all her fame and influence, there has never been a proper biopic on Brooks before today, so when I learned that Julian Fellowes – he of Downton Abbey fame – had written the screenplay for a film about Brooks called The Chaperone, I was eager to see it.
But take good note of that title: The Chaperone refers not to Brooks but to a fictitious housewife named Norma (Downton matriarch Elizabeth McGovern), who in 1922 agrees to travel from Wichita to New York with the 15-year-old Brooks, newly accepted into a modern dance program at the prestigious Denishawn School. So in fact Norma is the film's protagonist, the story's primary focus being her quest to locate her birth parents (she was adopted as a young girl) and her need for healing after a rift in her marriage. As for Brooks, she flits and flirts in and out of the proceedings, offering tantalizing glimpses of the movie that might have been.
Fellowes's script is based on a novel by Laura Moriarty, which in turn is loosely based on fact: Louise Brooks really did live in Wichita in the early 1920s, really did attend Denishawn in New York in 1922, and really did have a chaperone (one Alice Mills, whom Brooks herself described as a "stocky, bespectacled housewife of thirty-six"). Other snippets from Brooks's biography surface here and there. But just as we start to get interested in what was going on with Brooks at the time, the movie cuts back to Norma and her maudlin dramatics.
It's nice to see the pleasant McGovern headline a film again, although she's clearly a good 15-20 years older than her character. As Brooks, rising star Haley Lu Richardson is also clearly well past 15, but she brings a welcome sauciness to her role. (She resembles Louise Brooks only in the sense that any attractive young white woman in a black bob will resemble Louise Brooks.) Veteran TV director Engler, helming his first feature, seems mostly to be prepping for the upcoming theatrical version of Downton.
All in all, The Chaperone is a harmless little movie for Granny. But with Louise Brooks such a fascinating, iconic personality, it's a crime to put her in a movie only to shunt her off to the sidelines. It would be great if The Chaperone was merely a prequel to a juicy biopic about Brooks's adventures in Hollywood – and I'd be happy to see Richardson continue in the role – but alas, that's not to be.