Charmingly led by Kelvin Harrison Jr, this biopic steps through the story of French Creole violinist and composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
August 03, 2023
"He is the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, music." Writing in his diary in 1779 about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, American Founding Father and future second US President John Adams didn't hold back with his praise. But the world has barely taken his cue in the nearly two-and-a-half centuries since, letting the tale of this gifted French Creole violinist, conductor and composer slip from wider attention. Within a sumptuous period drama that's charmingly, confidently and commandingly led by Kelvin Harrison Jr — with the Waves, The High Note, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Cyrano star full of mesmerising swagger, and also endlessly compelling as a talent forced to struggle as a person of colour in a white aristocratic world — Chevalier endeavours to redress this failing of history.
Veteran television director Stephen Williams (Watchmen, Westworld, Lost) and screenwriter Stefani Robinson (Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows) begin their Bologne biopic boldly, playfully and with a front-on confrontation of the "Black Mozart" label that's surrounded their subject when he has been remembered — even if they also commence Chevalier with likely fiction. In pre-revolution Paris in the late 18th century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen, Father Brown) has an enraptured crowd in his thrall as he both plays and conducts. He pauses, then prompts his audience for requests. The response comes as a surprise: Bologne striding down the aisle, asking if he too can pick up a violin, then getting duelling with the musical instrument against the acclaimed maestro. Williams and Robinson start their film with a statement, announcing that they're celebrating a life that's been left not only ignored and erased — especially in a realm that's so often considered old, stuffy and definitely not culturally diverse — but also been stuck lingering in someone else's shadow.
Chevalier's opening scene is well-staged, instantly rousing and a clever kickoff that speaks volumes — also cheer-worthy, as its on-screen viewers heartily deem it — and, most crucially, it sets the tone for Bologne's continual battle. He won't go mano a mano with Mozart again, but he'll never stop fighting in various fashions. Being underestimated, undervalued and worse due to his race is sadly his life story, which Chevalier places front and centre. As 2013's Belle did in focusing on Dido Elizabeth Belle, the film makes plain the prejudices and politics of the era in a genre that too rarely genuinely interrogates either. The world of Bridgerton may now peer backwards with romantic fantasy and colourblind casting, but that isn't the same as stepping through the experiences of someone who should be far better known, and undoubtedly would be if not for the reaction to their heritage.
When he's still a boy (debutant Reuben Anderson) being installed in the only boarding school that will take him, far away from the French colony of Guadeloupe that has always been his home, Joseph is told by his father (Jim High, Foundation) that he must always be excellent in order to be accepted. From that exchange onwards, Bologne chases greatness in all matters — with a foil in his hand, and both performing and writing music, most notably. But even as he impresses Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton, Barbie) as an adult, is bestowed the knightly chevalier title and gets a chance to compete to lead the Paris Opera, French society remains quick to drip scorn whenever he exceeds the parts that they'll let him play. Whatever heights he's allowed to reach, he's still viewed as the illegitimate son of white plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese teen.
Williams and Robinson unpack the complexities of Bologne's friendship with the queen, whose progressive ideals are pushed to the fore purely when she's confident in her popularity, and his, among the court. Over both of their futures, the French Revolution looms inescapably — although Chevalier stops before depicting Bologne's time leading an all-Black regiment. Instead, it hones in on two interconnected plot points: that attempt to obtain France's top music post and a romance. For the coveted job, he vies for glory against the snooty and dismissive Christoph Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Marriage). In affairs of the heart, he falls for Marie-Joséphine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving, Scream VI), wife of the stern military figure Marquise de Montalembert (Marton Csokas, The Last Duel), after convincing her to sing in the opera that's meant to secure his dream gig.
Chevalier repeatedly anchors Bologne's journey in a blatant truth, albeit one that he doesn't see: that the more entrenched he thinks he is within France's upper echelons, the more he's immersed in a discriminatory system that'll never truly welcome him. When his mother Nanon (Ronke Adékoluẹjo, Rain Dogs) re-enters his life, finally free after his father's death, she instantly spots what her son can't — "you are a tourist in their world," she advises — and he isn't thrilled. Whether Joseph is contentedly believing that he's close to carving out his niche or eventually angry at the grim reality, he's feverishly working or dashingly courting, or he's demonstrating his prowess with a rapier or a bow, Harrison Jr is consistently exceptional. He's excellent at conveying Bologne's certainty in his skills and worth, too, including when diva Marie-Madeleine Guimard (Minnie Driver, Starstruck) thinks that he'll bed her because she demands it, and at working through the fiery heartbreak when his society dream is broken.
This biopic is an act of rectification. It's a dive into the forgotten past, sometimes taking liberties as it depicts its subject's pursuit of liberté, égalité, fraternité, with a clear purpose and point. The film benefits immensely from enlisting Harrison Jr as its lead. It also boasts fine performances by Adékoluẹjo, Boynton and Weaving, with the former playing plucky and proud, and the latter two each exploring the difficulties of your heart and mind being at odds with the role that you inhabit. Chevalier is gleefully happy to relish its genre's aesthetic and conventions as well, be it at lavish champagne-filled parties or behind opera's scenes, complete with sniping among the well-to-do. While it's the tale, reclamation and portrayals that shine brightest — even if detailing significant parts of Bologne's later story in the text-on-screen post-script is a curious move — reaching ample high notes comes easily.
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