Three movies do not a trend make. However, the announcement in the Hollywood Reporter that Keira Knightley will star in and produce the film of Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel “The Other Typist” suggests there is an emergent fascination with revisiting the Roaring Twenties in New York.
Baz Luhrmann's “The Great Gatsby” having already maxed out the potential for depicting Jazz Age Bacchanalia on screen, the stage is set for more intimate stories of bobbed flappers getting into trouble in speakeasies.
As well as “The Other Typist,” Fox Searchlight is developing “The Chaperone,” as I reported here. Based on Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel, it reinvents the woman who watched over the future silent star Louise Brooks when she came to New York as a 15-year-old dancer in 1922. “Downton Abbey”’s creator Julian Fellowes is doing the adaptation and “Downton” star Elizabeth McGovern will play the eponymous character saddled with that impossible task.
Published in the US this May, “The Other Typist,” which is set in 1924, was issued in the UK this week to “exploit Gatsby mania,” wrote John O’Connell in The Guardian. Crafted with “The Good Soldier,” “Notes on a Scandal” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in mind, it features an unreliable narrator, Rose Baker, who is telling her story from her current berth in an asylum.
Unattractive and sexually repressed, Rose was evicted from the Queens nunnery where she was raised as an orphan for an indiscretion with a novice. She has become a stenographer in a Lower East Side police precinct, where the arrival of a new typist, the supremely glamorous Odalie, turns everyone’s heads – Rose’s most of all. Rose’s description of Odalie’s Brooksian impact indicates which role Knightley will play:
“I can recall the day Odalie came in and removed her cloche to reveal her jet-black hair swinging in a similar shape just beneath. It had been cut to her chin, the line of it very precise. I remember that the cut brought out something vaguely and fashionanly oriental in Odalie’s face, especially around the eyes, and the sheen of her hair was very glossy, as though she wore a helmet made of finely polished enamel.”
Odalie befriends Rose, takes her to speakeasies, immerses her in Jazz Age decadence, and installs her in her luxurious hotel suite. But neither woman is what she seems. They’re partying with socialites in Long Island – Gatsbyland – when the worm turns and someone winds up dead.
Flapper culture is alluring for novelists and filmmakers for several reasons. It allows for the rediscovery of sexual liberation. It’s egalitarian in its inclusion of debutantes and working girls (think Brooks’s classiness and Clara Bow’s boisterousness). And the clothes are elegant. The movies of “The Chaperone” and “The Typist” will have an in-built distancing mechanism – the passage of ninety years. Whereas “Spring Breakers” and “The Bling Ring” force viewers to confront the hedonism and ennui of the young – and young women in particular. Sybarites served up in cloches, drop-waist dresses, and rayon stockings are much harder to moralize about.