The line between fact and fiction is mainly blurred with the introduction of McGovern’s title character, Norma, a small-town wife and mother who offers to accompany the teenage Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) to a dance school in New York. While it’s doubtful much of this actually happened, intertwining Norma’s story with Brooks’ is clever in that it provides plenty of the cross-generational clashes of opinion you’d expect from a young woman travelling with a stranger older than her parents. Speaking of Louise’s parents, it seems bizarre that they would allow Norma to chaperone their daughter without providing a clear reason for wanting to do so, but the film needs to delay explaining this to heighten the intrigue (more on that later).
Once the pair arrive, a serendipitous turn of events leads to Norma reuniting with a figure from her past, played sensationally by Blythe Danner. Throughout Danner’s short time on screen Fellowes’ script abandons the forced wit and flourishes previously stopping me from immersing myself. By contrast, this single conversation starts out believably awkward and ends up devastating without losing its subtlety, an honest moment that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Many other films where emotional secrets are uncovered have their plots consumed by the fallout (looking at you, Second Act), yet here the revelation is impressively restrained, serving instead as a motivation for Norma’s subsequent actions. In the process of setting up this reunion, Norma also meets Joseph (Géza Röhrig), who inspires some predictable epiphanies about how she needs to make more room for her own happiness. Leaving aside the cliched message, my bigger objection to this arc is Joseph not having a reason to help Norma as much as he does from moment they meet beyond, even if we accept he’s purely a nice guy. Some might call it emblematic of a simpler time, but it feels more like the script was written in reverse chronological order, with plot threads forced to fit a predetermined conclusion.
Meanwhile, Louise and Norma have their own painful conversation later in the film, this time about the former’s upbringing and ostensible naivete. I was similarly floored here from Richardson’s commanding performance alone, and furthermore impressed that the moment again didn’t end up taking over the story while fundamentally reframing the character. Apart from this scene however, Richardson is largely underutilised and becomes yet another catalyst for Norma’s development. Nevertheless, the scenes set during Louise’s dance classes are admittedly beautifully choreographed, though I’m not pleased Miranda Otto was cast as the school’s cofounder only to be given nothing to do, despite playing a key figure who shaped the real-life Brooks’ career path. The historical elements are ultimately an afterthought in THE CHAPERONE, but at least they’re pretty. In fact, much like Downton Abbey the craftwork is consistently gorgeous throughout, from set design to the plethora of Roaring Twenties costumes.
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, then THE CHAPERONE’s flaws will be easily overlooked. As someone who never felt the show was for me, it’s hard to ignore events being clearly being shown out of order, or information withheld because the plot isn’t very interesting, or how none of the dialogue outside of the scenes I singled out sounds like a real person and not a film character. Regardless, Engler and Fellowes do drop the pretence at times and deliver genuinely affecting drama; while this ultimately won’t be remembered as the best effort of anyone involved, it’s better than I expected.