Based on the true story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, who rises to heights in French society as a composer before an ill-fated love affair.
Due to a decree issued by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the music and operas of Joseph Bologne were banned from public performance, no longer published and in some cases, ordered to be destroyed. As a result, much of the composer’s work has been forgotten, though through the efforts of music scholars, much of it has been rediscovered, the result being a resurgence in popularity of the composer in classical music circles.
While Stephen Williams’ “Chevalier” likely will not lead to a popular resurgence of Bologne’s music as Milos Foreman’s “Amadeus” did for his rival Mozart, it hopefully will prompt some viewers to delve further into his background and works. Though it takes some liberties, as all bio-pics due, and its contemporary language is quite jarring in the world of 18th century France where the story takes place, the film still proves for the most part to be an engaging expose, though it loses steam as it transitions to its third act.
Things get off to a rousing start when our hero (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) crashes a concert being given by Mozart (Joseph Prowen) and asks if he can accompany the master on stage. What ensues is a bout of dueling violins, Bologne getting the better of his rival, humiliating him in the process. (While I cannot find confirmation this actually happened, the sequence is so stirring and well-executed you’ll let it pass as I did.) This defiant, showboating act gets the composer the attention he craves and soon he’s a favorite of the court, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) dubbing him a Chevalier (knight). Opera diva La Guimard (Minnie Driver) begins clamoring for his attention in more ways than one, while Bologne angles towards his dream job of becoming director of the Paris Opera. He approaches Madame De Genlis (Sian Clifford), an influential writer of the day, for her assistance and is soon penning an opera based on one of her novels. His intent is to have the young soprano Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) as his star, something her husband strenuously objects to.
There’s no shortage of ambition where Stefani Robinson’s script is concerned. Frequent flashbacks flesh out Bologne’s backstory, as we witness his being left at a private school by his father, a plantation owner in Guadalupe who sired him with a 16-year-old slave. His music prowess evident from a young age, blossoms as does his skill as a fencer and raconteur. Scenes showing increased societal tension are shoehorned in as well, as Bologne’s associate Phillipe (Alex Fitzalan) speaks passionately of revolution, an idea that rapidly takes hold and grows.
While this is surely a reflection of the man and his times, Robinson’s screenplay seems top heavy and incomplete at times. Some of the various plotlines are not developed as fully as they could be, in particular the one focusing on Bologne’s relationship with Marie Antoinette, which is left to wither but then suddenly reemerges during the third act. There’s a sense here and at other moments that perhaps some scenes were shot and cut, a feeling of incompleteness pervasive during the last half hour. A mini-series may have been a better approach with such a sprawling tale, particularly in light of a crawl before the end credits that clues us in on the other events Bologne participated in before the end of his life.
Still and all, for this most part this is a very engaging film, the lavish production constantly arresting while Harrison carries the movie on his shoulders, the young man perhaps our most underrated and overlooked actor. Bringing a fierce energy to each role he takes on (“Monster,” “Luce”), the performer commands our attention and rewards us for it. Boynton is fine but given too little to do, while Weaving proves captivating as Bologne’s ill-fated lover.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, it still proves worthwhile, if for nothing else, telling this largely unknown story. Though the efforts to erase Bologne’s life from official records proved successful for well over a century, “Chevalier” at the very least opens the door to further excavation of the artist’s work and heroic deeds.
Forgotten history, specifically Black History, gives rise to many stories for filmmakers to tell as we saw last week with “Sweetwater, the story of a the first Black NBA player. Now, we have the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) an illegitimate son of a French plantation owner who recognizes this young boy’s musical prowess. Dumped off at a prestigious and unwelcoming school, Joseph proves himself worthy no matter the subject. From fencing to studies, year after year, he rises to the top, but it is his gift of music that makes everyone, including the Royals of France such as Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), take notice.
Joseph’s drive and lack of humility place him in the position to compete for the most prestigious placement in France; the Head of the French Opera. Making friends and enemies along the way as he creates his competitive piece, he falls in love with his lead singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), the wife of the Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas). Their love affair not only turns heads, but just might place Joseph’s on a silver platter.
“Chevalier” is gorgeously shot and told as we are transported back in time to Mozart and the uprising of the French Revolution just prior to Napoleon. (Stick around for the credits to learn more about Napoleon’s part in why we have never heard of Chevalier.) The costuming and production design are both vibrant with attention to every regal detail. And while we see the disparity of the common people and the upper echelon, the story of racism seers beneath the surface as Joseph finds himself face to face with his former self and who he has become thanks to a reunion with his mother, a slave.
Writer Stefani Robinson doesn’t spend much time in the young boy’s childhood and traumas. We quickly breeze through the difficulties of being Black in this era and in an all white boys’ school. However, this seems a little cavalier as I would imagine things would have been much harsher than this story lets on. We quickly plunge ahead a decade or so into Joseph’s adulthood where he challenged Mozart, successfully publicly humiliating him. Joseph’s or as he is now called Chevalier’s bold and entitled attitude does nothing to ingratiate him into the patriarchal inner circles, but it does wonders with the ladies.
Unfortunately, we spend too much time laying the foundation of the story, about an hour, before we are introduced to Marie-Josephine and their love affair. It is also after this point that we see Chevalier as a man who must confront being half Black, his mother’s heritage, and what he stands for during this time in French history. This is the heart of the story and when I began to connect with the lead character, watching as he struggled with his life and the possible choices that lay ahead.
While the wheels do spin a little slowly for the first hour, Harrison Jr gives us a nuanced and rich performance. After that hour mark, he is allowed to shine as he lets us into his thoughts and more importantly into his heart. Harrison, who I first saw in “Luce” stood out as a rising star and he has proven me to be correct. He elevates any role he takes and can handedly carry the leading role. From Luce to Fred Hampton in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and B.B. King in “Elvis,” Harrison Jr connects with his character deeply and in return we do as well.