A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Chaperone is a made-for-PBS-television film written for the screen by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes from a novel by Laura Moriarty. Although set in 1922, the tone is modern as it touches on infidelity, clandestine gay lives, racism, unwed mothers, repressed women casting down their social shackles, and rule-breaking behavior of such outliers as the young Louise Brooks, who would one day become a celebrated silent movie star and memoirist. Two male lovers are seen jumping out of the bed they are sharing. Orphans, homosexuality, racism, out-of-wedlock babies, women's liberation, changing morals, prohibition, and other 1920s issues are the underlying themes. Shortly after World War I, Americans called a man with an accent a "dirty Kraut." Underage Louise sneaks off to a speakeasy and gets drunk, then later throws up, and suffers a hangover.
What's the story?
While THE CHAPERONE imagines the story of Wichita-bred movie star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) as she heads to New York City of 1922 to study modern dance with the famed Denishawn dance company, the focus is on local matron Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), who volunteers to accompany and watch over the 15-year-old in the wicked big city. Predictably, Louise feels constrained by the corseted Presbyterian moralist sharing her room. "Men don't like candy that's been unwrapped," Norma advises the bemused Louise. Norma is so starchy she can't even imagine that Louise's candy has already been "unwrapped" and that the girl cares not at all about her prospects for marriage, a form of voluntary bondage in her view. Although Norma admires Louise's talent and supports her breaking free of certain restraints, they're still at odds. Norma is a prohibitionist and Louise mischievously sneaks out to get drunk at a speakeasy. Norma was adopted in New York and though she eagerly tries to find out who her parents were, the nuns at her orphanage refuse access to her records. When she works around the obstacles and finds her mother, she's faced with the hypocrisy created by more rules that hold women back. Flashbacks to a trauma in Norma's marriage make it clear that she remains sexually unfulfilled. Together these disappointments lead her to take charge of her life. In contrast, Louise is so unrestrained, her freedom may end up harming her in a society not yet ready for her.
Is it any good?
Twists and turns of this movie are alternately predictable and engaging, but for the most part the story seems a bit too timid and neatly tied up to pack the emotional punch it might have had. Performances by the endearing McGovern, who is around twenty years older than the book's character, and the cheeky Richardson are solid and admirable, but they can't overcome a sense that the script feels pat and obvious, relying on both a metaphorical and a real restrictive corset to remind us how repressed women of the time were.
That Louise will become an international film star whose persona embodied the iconoclastic flapper of the Jazz Age -- the precursor to the modern liberated woman -- gives the story more weight than it would otherwise deserve. The Chaperone's quick wrap-up suggests that Norma's snap decision to change her life (by breaking every rule that's guided her narrow existence) somehow results in a seamless transition from frustration and powerlessness to complete happiness and self actualization. That's a bit hard to swallow. The fact that her triumph runs simultaneous over twenty years to Louise's real-life collapse from celebrated star to the washed-up drunk who returned to Wichita in shame feels cheap and unearned.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the issues that concerned people in the 1920s that still resonate today. A man suggests that if his wife divorces and denounces him for homosexuality he might be killed by the disapproving folks of Wichita, Kansas. Are there places where such attitudes haven't changed?
The Louise Brooks of 100 years ago seems modern as she ignores the special social rules that governed proper female behavior. How have individualists like Brooks paved the way for women to live freer lives today?
The Chaperone suggests that breaking rules can be good, that women can't be liberated or have happy lives if they live by the rules created by a male-dominated society. Do you agree or disagree? Why? What are some good rules we follow in society today? What are some bad ones?
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