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The Chaperone

Haley Lu Richardson as young Louise Brooks & Elizabeth McGovern as Norma Carlisle
Leave it to the prolific Julian Fellowes to find a film project to showcase Elizabeth McGovern, the Lady Cora of his mega hit TV series Downton Abbey. His source is Larua Moriarty's best selling 2012 novel The Chaperone which I read and liked several years ago. The result is a fact-based period drama that premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2018 and that PBS Distribution released just in time to provide 103 minutes of escape from the surreal life we're all living duping this Coronavirus pandemic.

Fellowes' script sticks pretty closely to Moriarty's inventively merged story about two very different characters who grew up in the same Midwestern town — one at age 15 who actually lived; the other a 36-year old married woman who the author invented.

The 15-year-old is Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) who did indeed begin life in a small Kansas town but became a legendary sex symbol, dancer in Broadway revues and silent film star whose name and image was splashed across marquees throughout the country. Unlike Louise who in life and this film was grew up as a rich man's daughter , the fictional older Norma Carlisle (McGovern) came to Kansas on one of the famous and also real orphan trains. She was adopted by a poor but loving farm couple and married a rich lawyer when she was just 16. Thus by 1922, when the story begins, Norma she is a respectable and busy matron and socialite. So, when young Louise wins a summer scholarship to study at the prestigious dance studio of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (like Louise, both are also legendary historic figures), Norma's offer to accompany the girl to New York is welcomed by her parents.

While Brooks may at first seem the more interesting character, Moriarty used her as an auxiliary to her epic exploration of the morals and manners of the changes in the morals and manner brought on by the Jazz Age. But the young Louise was already a flamboyant free spirit when she and her chaperone embarked for New York, it's the literally and figuratively corseted Norma who epitomizes the epic changes in mores and style of that era. Louise's internship is thus just the underpinning for Norma's story. It's thus an ideal star vehicle for McGovern and perfect opportunity for Fellowes and director Michael Engler, who also helmed the Downton Abbey feature film., to give this adaptation all the visual glitz associated with a Fellowes scripted story. Candice Donelly's costumes alone make it worth watching by fashion aficionados.

Elizabeth McGovern captures the nuances of the surface and hidden aspect's of her character's life — the joy she takes in being a member of her community and mother of twin sons but also her feelings of unresolved yearnings to know her real family and the secret dysfunction of her marriage. Richardson proves herself to be a newcomer worth watching. However, the various male characters make less of an impression and are, in fact, rather wooden.

My kindle edition of the novel estimates that it takes about six hours to read. Telling the story from page to screen, and unfolding it in varied location in just a little more than an hour and a half calls for eliminating some of the book's details. Thus, the film has just a brief aftermath to Louise and Norma's time in New York which works for a well-paced entertainment but loses the epic scope and impact of the novel.

If you missed seeing The Chaperone when it first aired on PBS and you haven't already insure any-time access to all their programming, now is an an especially good time to join up. There's a wealth of entertainment to see the stay-at-home days. I recently caught myself watching the rest Performances fiilmed version of Paula Vogel's wonderful Indecent, the premiere production of which in the Vineyard Theater in 2016 (review) and again the following year (review). While filmed versions of plays written for live staging often lose their vibrancy, this is one retains its power. What's more, it's more relevant than ever.

While neither the book or screen version of The Chaperone talks about the Flu pandemic just four years earlier. But whether reading the book or seeing the film while living through the horrid Coronavirus pandemic, will remind us that the changes this one brings about will include better preventative measures so that it can't happen again.

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