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The Chaperone

"Charming, heartbreaking and heartwarming"

★★★★ - STUFF 

"Born in Kansas, On an ordinary plain
Ran to New York, But ran away from fame
Only 17, When all your dreams came true
But all you wanted was someone to undress you."

I've been fascinated by the life of Hollywood's silent screen siren Louise Brooks ever since Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's turned it into a dance hit with 1991's Pandora's Box. Now, it's finally the subject of a sumptuous-looking, but beautifully understated big-screen drama – or at least part of it is.

Based on Laura Moriarty's 2012 novel of the same name, The Chaperone's protagonist is actually fictional Brooks' guardian Norma (Cora in Moriarty's book) Carlyle (Elizabeth McGovern).

Leaving behind a troubled marriage and two adult sons, she has her own reasons for wanting to accompany the precocious teen dancer to the bright lights of the Big Apple. While Louise studies at the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing, Norma hits the streets in search of her own identity. Raised in a Catholic orphanage in Gotham, before being adopted out to a farming family, Norma wants to learn the truth about why her mother give her up in the first place.

When the nuns won't help her, she gets a hand from an unlikely source – the orphanage's widowed maintenance man. However, Norma also finds she has her hands full trying to keep good-time girl Louise on the straight and narrow. Despite being warned that "men don't like candy that's been unwrapped", her young protege seems determined to use her ability to turn heads to her advantage whenever she can.

Despite being saddled with a memory-driven fractured narrative that occasionally stifles the dramatic flow, director Michael Engler (best-known for TV dramas like The Big C and Six Feet Under) has crafted a compelling tale that showcases the talents of his two leading ladies. Likewise, while Julian Fellowes' (Downton AbbeyGosford Park) script is almost overstuffed with conflicts aimed at connecting with a contemporary audience (almost 100 years on from the early 1920s action), it certainly shines when focused on the interplay and clash of ideals, generations and sensibilities between Brooks and Carlyle.

Part of the Downton ensemble, the now 57-year-old McGovern here is something of a revelation. The American actress, whose sole Academy Award nomination was for Ragtime in 1981, delivers a fabulous performance as a woman hoping to reinvent her past and her future. Just as impressive is the young actress playing Brooks. Virtually unrecognisable from last month's teen-weepie Five Feet Apart, thanks to sporting the silent movie star's' trademark black bob,  Haley Lu Richardson has just the right amount of chutzpah, churlishness and charisma to convince as the flapper icon.

It all adds up to a charming, heartbreaking and heartwarming two hours of emotion-inducing entertainment.

- James Croot, STUFF

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