Elizabeth McGovern stretches out of her typecasting as Cora, Countess of Grantham, and returns to somewhat more complicated roles as the central character in The Chaperone (2019). She’s a naive Kansas wife, Norma, who volunteers to accompany 16-year-old Louise Brooks to attend dance school in New York City. While Brooks is later to become a silent-film star and we know her story, Norma’s complicated past and secret-filled present drive the action here.
The Chaperone had a brief theatrical release in March 2019, then was made available on PBS Passport online, and finally aired on PBS Masterpiece in November 2019. The movie feels more like a TV movie than made for the big screen, so nothing is lost by watching it streaming. Set mostly in 1922, the period details are beautiful and fairly accurate, although some of the press indicates that the movie was made on a tight budget.
Speaking of accuracy, the story comes from a historical fiction novel by Laura Moriarty (Julian Fellowes adapted the screenplay). McGovern’s character is wholly invented. There are some elements of truth — Louise Brooks was from Kansas and was sexually molested as a girl. She was a dancer and attended the Denishawn School of Dancing modern dance company in 1922, when she was 15. However, the school was in Los Angeles, not New York City (Denishawn later opened a branch in the Bronx, NY, in 1927, not that Brooks attended), so the central premise of this movie is false. Still, the book’s story makes for an entertaining frock flick.
And goshdarnit, this is a pretty little movie! Apparently, costume designer Candice Donnelly (who has mostly worked in theater) hardly built any full costumes specifically for this production, due to time and budget limitations. In Beyond Fashion Magazine, she said:
“Usually [when shooting a film] you have months and months. We only had three weeks to shoot the movie and pre-production was three before that. The whole process was about two months.”
As a result, Donnelly “ended up buying a lot of vintage clothes on [online]. I also borrowed something from England.” This is stunning when you see how lovely the show looks and how well the clothes evoke the period. She must have some mad shopping skillz! Plus, she knew what she was looking for and what she was trying to achieve. In Times Square Chronicles, Donnelly said:
“I love doing the research. I love fabrics and trying to re-create the way they moved. I found myself digging up and looking at old photographs. What was beautiful then is different from now. How women look and their decorum was based on their clothes.”
I’m not an expert in 1920s fashion, but in my cursory perusal of catalogs and photos, oh yeah, she nailed it here. Moreover, the costumes reflect the characters and in subtle ways that don’t hit you over the head. OK, maybe with one exception, which I’ll explain. Though I’ll keep most of the plot points secret because I enjoyed how they rolled out in the movie, just watch it for yourself!
Have you seen The Chaperone? Did you read the book?