When you watch the silent-screen star Louise Brooks in one of the films that made her a legend, most spectacularly the glittering femme-fatale drama “Pandora’s Box” (1929), it’s shocking to see how contemporary she looks. Haircuts that were once cutting edge — punk spikes, a ’50s ducktail, Jane Fonda’s “Klute” shag — look, almost inevitably with time, less radical than they once did, but Brooks’ girl-in-a-black-helmet look is nearly 100 years old (she first wore it in the early ’20s, courtesy of the New York hairdresser Saveli, the only one who was doing bobs with a razor), and in its Joan of Arc of the Jazz Age way it still looks like something out of a sci-fi fantasy. It’s the sharpness of the angles — they look like they could slice you — and the jet-black lacquered sheen of it.
And, of course, it’s the ivory-skinned siren who wore it. Brooks, unlike every other actress of the silent era, even the greatest ones (Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Theda Bara), didn’t go in for grand displays; she understated her smiling freedom and sensuality, letting the emotions flow through her startlingly delicate and precise features. The critic Kenneth Tynan observed, “She’s the only unrepentant hedonist, the only pure pleasure-seeker I think I’ve ever known. And this comes over in her films.” Brooks may be the one screen actress of the first half of the 20th century who conveys not just feminism but post-feminism; that’s how ahead of her time she was. She had an inner sparkle that allowed her simply to be, and that was the thrust of her presence: a revolutionary new definition of womanhood that stripped all the old roles away, leaving nothing but her casual goddess incandescence.
What actress today could approach playing Louise Brooks? Her fusion of delicacy and fire was unique, yet in “The Chaperone,” the vivacious and daring Haley Lu Richardson plays Brooks at 16, when she was just starting out and feeling her power in the world, and damned if she doesn’t conjure a dose of the Brooks mystique. The movie is set in 1922, the year Brooks left her lovely but stuffy hometown of Wichita, Kan., to travel to New York City, where she’d won a coveted spot in the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts.
She wants to be a dancer in the Isadora Duncan mold (and Richardson, with a dance background, communicates this directly), yet her passion isn’t for dance, exactly. It’s for any kind of expression. The energy that pours out of her on the rehearsal floor is the same eroticized audacity that takes her into a speakeasy, where she speaks her mind by reading yours. Richardson’s features are a little softer and rounder than Brooks’, but beneath that haircut, with red lips and black eyebrows, she comes off as radiantly knowing — the original Edie Sedgwick It Girl, a mischievous and reckless daredevil who sees that the world will be her oyster as long as she treats it that way. No wonder Brooks landed in Hollywood. Just being in New York in the ’20s, she’s living in her own movie.
But she’s doing it with a restriction. Her mother has agreed to the trip only if Louise is accompanied by a chaperone, and the woman who volunteers for the job is Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), a Wichita society matron of scolding rectitude who still wears a corset and staunchly favors prohibition. “The Chaperone” makes you want to see a major drama about Louise Brooks, but this movie is far from it. Written by Julian Fellowes, and directed by the TV veteran Michael Engler, it’s a small-scale movie, and no harm in that, but it’s tidy and stagy in a fusty middlebrow way.
Yet there are moments the two actresses lift the material. Norma and Louise start off disliking each other, and Louise isn’t shy about sniping. She can tell Norma’s marriage is a sham — and when we see why in flashback (Norma walks in on her husband, played by Campbell Scott, who’s in bed with a man), the movie becomes a lecture about the oppressive mores of an era: the ones that people like Louise Brooks would symbolize the beginning of an end to. Norma has other issues. She’s an orphan who has come to New York in the hope of finding her birth parents — and after a little digging around at the Catholic orphanage she lived at as a little girl, she does. She also finds something even less likely: a new man. She may chafe at Louise’s free spirit, but it rubs off on her like a virus, and McGovern plays this transformation with quiet wit and authority.
Most of the time, though, Norma is reining Louise in. And while the battle of wills between them “works” in a programmatic way, the film also grows frustrating, because it has grabbed hold of a great subject — Louise Brooks becoming Louise Brooks — that it has to keep pushing off to the side. A framing device is set 20 years later, after Brooks has washed out of Hollywood (there were many reasons why, prominent among them: the talkies didn’t agree with her), and now, with the kind of symmetrical irony a film like this one overvalues, it’s Norma, the reformed puritan, who gives Louise the courage to go on. But only because of the spirit she got from Louise. “The Chaperone” leaves you wanting to see a movie about the star Louise Brooks became, on camera and off. It could be the great movie that has yet to be made about the silent era, and about the things that women in Hollywood have always faced. Especially one who was unlike any woman the world had seen.