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With 20 years of prestige television now in our rear view mirror, the line between the silver screen and the small screen may be larger than it appears. Sure, TV shows are routinely described as “cinematic,” and the biggest blockbusters are just episodes in long-running franchises. But there is one surefire way to remind yourself of the difference: Watch a TV show in a movie theater and see how tiny it looks.
That’s what you’ll get if you pony up to see The Chaperone, a scrawny PBS Masterpiece film that would likely be far more grand were it viewed in your living room. Shot on cheap digital video that makes 1920s New York look like a reality show, its only value as a cinematic experience is as a test balloon for the Downton Abbey movie to be released later this year. The Chaperone was adapted by Julian Fellowes, who created the BBC series, from a bestselling book; directed by Michael Engler, a veteran TV director who helmed five episodes; and stars Elizabeth McGovern, better known Abbey’s Cora Crawley, as the title character.
The Chaperone seems designed to appeal only to PBS’ regular audience. The logline will tell you it’s about the early days of silent film star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson), who first came to New York from her home in Kansas in the early 1920s to attend dancing school. I’d like to see that movie. This one bizarrely focuses on Norma, her unremarkable middle-aged chaperone who takes the thankless job of supervising Louise to escape a bad marriage and find some answers about her family history while in New York.
As played by McGovern, Norma comes off as cartoonishly prudish. Her voice quavers with timidity, and her wide eyes seem to be constantly on the verge of tears. It is a stark contrast to Louise, brimming with sexuality and youthful confidence. As Louise seeks to get to know the young men they encounter on their travels, Norma scowls like Miss Daisy on her way to the Piggly Wiggly and utters risible dialogue such as “Nobody wants a candy that is already unwrapped.”
The script by Fellowes aims for a character study of Norma, but its approach is too scattershot to be effective. We learn about the troubles in her marriage through a series of contrived flashbacks featuring an illicit affair of her husband’s (a wasted Campbell Scott). Meanwhile, her attempts to discover her birth parents—she was adopted from a New York orphanage—features a revelation that arrives without warning and departs just as quickly. You never quite know what Norma’s story is about, and McGovern’s performance is hardly compelling enough for that not to matter.
There are a few moments of real emotion in The Chaperone—her reunion with a family member is affecting as a standalone scene—but the film pays such little attention to its relationships that they never achieve any cumulative power. Norma’s romance with a German janitor is laughably underwritten, and even her relationship with Louise, purportedly the central and most important one in the film, never rises above that indicated in the title. They never become friends or sisters. To the end, she remains only the fussy chaperone to a wild child, a relationship so impersonal it hardly deserves its own movie. A TV show, maybe.
The Chaperone opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.