A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was attending a filmmaking class at Trident Tech. One class we were treated to a rough cut of a film shot in and around Charleston. Those parts were very green and lined with copious amounts of those tall green things you’d find throughout Johns Island, James Island, and Summerville among other places. I think they were called trees.
Anyway, the film we watched had a title akin to A River Runs Through It or Legends of the Fall. It may have been a very good movie, but thanks to a classmate, I was too immersed in the theatrical nuttiness of John Woo’s early films to really give the film its proper due. Score one for being a smug fella who naively thought only his taste was worth anything. Anyway, that’s enough pontificating. In an endless attempt to become more well-rounded and watch more than avant-garde “what-the-hell-did-I-just-watch?” films and exploitation fare, I decided a few months ago to start dipping my toe into — for lack of a better word — normal films. I would probably call Michael Engler’s The Chaperone normal.
The aforementioned Trident Tech class memory and, for some reason, Downton Abbey kept floating back to me while I was watching Engler’s adaptation of Laura Moriarty’s novel. Maybe that was because Cora Crawley herself, Elizabeth McGovern, was in the film. To put it in the most Cro-Magnon terms available, maybe The Chaperone reminded me of that movie from film school because it seemed to have an air of, well, class to it. Vulgarities and bullets didn’t fly in either work and people spoke to each other with a dignity expressing realistic emotions, albeit in a bygone era with slightly bigger words than I’m used to.
Set in 1922, society matron Norma Carlisle (McGovern) offers to escort a talented 15-year-old ballet dancer, Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) to audition at a dance academy in New York as a way to escape the unhappiness she feels in her marriage and life overall. Norma’s relatively conservative role is a simple one: keep free-spirited Louise on the straight and narrow. Louise is a social butterfly while Norma stands by, taking it all in. The men who are unwilling to give Norma a ride will loosen up when Louise flashes a casual smile.
Inevitably, these differences will cause a bump or two in the trip. Of course, Norma has her reasons for the trip that range from revisiting her past to eventually finding a kindred spirit in a local caretaker named Joseph (Géza Röhrig). Before too long, as the upbeat tempo of the Jazz Age kicks in, Louise has cut her long hair down to a bob that catches the eyes of soda jerks and jerk jerks alike. Not long after, the two women’s personal scars rise to the surface and they will eventually come out of it all for the better.
If the name Louise Brooks sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because she was one of America’s first sex symbols. With the alluring eyes and fetching bob, her most famous role was that of Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s crime romance film, Pandora’s Box. Going in, I was enticed by the cast off the bat. McGovern — the “she” who once had a baby with Kevin Bacon in She’s Having a Baby and found herself Lovesick with Dudley Moore — has made even the most boring of slogs a little better when she’s on screen.
Even when in a middling effort Richardson, currently riding high off the popularity of the YA romance Five Feet Apart, never disappoints. Röhrig, best known for his role in 2015’s Son of Saul, is equally exceptional in this, only his third-ever film role. Even the great Miranda Otto’s borderline cameo as a teacher is pretty sweet for those brief moments. The acting is pretty righteous all around. Aesthetically, it was fine. The sets seemed to fit the period, the dialogue was satisfactory. It all seemed to gel. The one thing that kept me from fully enjoying Louise and Norma’s journey of self discovery was an overwhelming feeling of inertia on the camera’s part.
It just felt a bit bland. I wasn’t expecting any crazy angles or flourishes but still there never seemed to be any emotion expressed with the camera. I could see something like that within films by Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg, but they used the cold camerawork to work alongside a cold story. Usually such staid camerawork is relegated to TV which, yet again explains why Downton Abbey came to mind. Engler has directed many a show including various episodes of that popular show and its cinematic continuation this fall.
Although it sometimes feels like it’s taking a light touch to lofty subjects and some scenes feel like normal TV-movie material, The Chaperone was entertaining nonetheless.
The Chaperone — Not rated. Directed by Michael Engler. Starring Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern, and Miranda Otto.