Wednesday, April 17, 2019

'The Chaperone,' a lukewarm period piece

In 1922, a wife from staid Wichita, Kansas, accompanies 15-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City where the young Louise continues studying dance. Played in The Chaperone by Elizabeth McGovern, the wife eventually returns to Wichita -- albeit in a somewhat revised version of her early-picture self. Brooks, portrayed by a vibrant Haley Lu Richardson, achieves movie stardom and a notorious reputation that turns her into an icon. Director Michael Engler sets up a familiar conflict in this fictionalized account of Brooks' teen years: Brooks' free-spirited volatility bumps against the strictures of middle-class life. Norma, who vainly tries to teach Louise propriety, has problems of her own: Her husband (Campbell Scott) has been unfaithful to her with another man. Richardson captures Brooks' unbridled energy and McGovern's character wrestles with her long-repressed impulses. Norma's desires are awakened by a handyman (Geza Rohrig) who works at the Catholic orphanage where Norma was raised and where she hopes to learn the identity of her biological mother. As the title suggests, the movie focuses mostly on the chaperone, a shame because Norma isn't interesting enough to compete with Richardsons' Brooks. Based on a novel by Laura Moriarty, Julian Fellowes' screenplay provides Norma with a dramatic arc of her own, but The Chaperone escorts us through a period piece that's often too lukewarm to simmer, much less to boil.

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