Julian Fellowes Visits the Jazz Age in America With ‘The Chaperone’

Barry Wetcher Courtesy of PBS Distribution

Julian Fellowes has a thing for the Jazz Age. In his greatest creation, Downton Abbey, he used this 20th-century period of flamboyant social change as the backdrop to a delectable saga of Edwardian manners among Britain’s working and noble classes. For his latest and more wistful Masterpiece project, The Chaperone, he turns his gaze to a uniquely American icon from the era: silent-movie siren and devil-may-care ’20s flapper Louise Brooks.

In a fictionalized tale “inspired by true events,” we meet Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) as a teen who’s desperate to escape her parochial Wichita, Kansas, upbringing when invited to study dance in New York City. But this is 1922, and even a would-be bohemian must have a chaperone.

Enter Norma Carlisle, played with moving and pained subtlety by Downton alum Elizabeth McGovern (above left, with Blythe Danner). Her prim demeanor, as a matronly acquaintance trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage, belies an equally restless soul within. In a time of corsets and rigid social constraints, she leaps at the chance to accompany Louise to the modern metropolis.

Norma has a secret agenda for the trip, and anyone expecting much insight into Louise’s early development as an artist may be disappointed. This is called The Chaperone for a reason.

We see Louise mostly through Norma’s admiring yet exasperated perspective, as the coquette in training lustily embraces the wild side while her protector goes on a clandestine detective hunt, seeking answers about her own childhood spent in an orphanage.

Géza Röhrig and Elizabeth McGovern (Credit: Barry Wetcher Courtesy of PBS Distribution)

In the process, Norma experiences her own liberation of the spirit, befriending a widowed German handyman (Géza Röhrig) and realizing, “I’m living now, and I want to be happy.” Norma begins her journey reading The Age of Innocence, and as she learns to roll with the times, The Chaperone becomes not so much a story of innocence lost but a fable of long overdue self-fulfillment.

The Chaperone, Premieres Sunday, November 24, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)