By Armen Pandola
Louise Brooks was different. Born in 1906 in the wilds of Kansas, she became a dance star before she was 16, a movie star before she was 20 and a has-been before she was 25. After that, she was a courtesan, a salesgirl, a movie critic and writer. She lived on her own terms and died many deaths, all of them painful. Along the way, she starred in two of the best silent films ever made, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She was one of the first to invent a new art form - acting on film, and presaged the natural acting style made famous in a later generation by Lee Strausberg and his pupil Marlon Brando.
When she left home at 16 to become a dancer, she had an escort, Norma, a married fellow Kansasian who was to be her chaperone. Norma was an orphan, born in New York City, then adopted and raised by a Kansas couple who picked her out of a bevy of little girls sent west on a train for the purpose of showing them to couples interested in adoption. At the age of 16, she married a local lawyer (Scott Campbell). They had twin boys and seemed happy enough, but something has come between them, and while it is apparent, like all emotions in that most mid of midwest places, it is suppressed.
Somehow, out of these two troubled lives, Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) has written a TV movie that is so satisfyingly good, so well written and acted that it could easily have been released as a movie. Instead, it is part of the Masterpiece series on PBS.
We meet Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) at a dance recital that Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) attends. When Louise's mother (Victoria Hill) comments that Louise will be off to the big city to dance in the famous Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts and, so, they are looking for a chaperone, Norma volunteers a little too readily.
Once in New York, Louise discovers the place where she can become herself - she's a natural vamp and every man she meets becomes enthralled with her. Norma seeks out the orphanage where she was raised and tries to find the names of her parents. The nuns who run the school refuse to tell her and, so, Norma takes a page out of Louise's book and entices a German immigrant widower, Joseph (Géza Röhrig) who works at the orphanage to help her.
Louise takes her first steps to stardom and Norma finds her mother (Blythe Danner). Neither gets what she expected. In the end, Louise loses everything and twenty years later is forced to return to Kansas, broke and broken. Meanwhile, Norma has taken the bits and pieces of a life that was forced upon her and weaves something quite magical - a good life based on deceit and compromise.