In a year where a plethora of movies about a product/company origin story are released, it’s good that we finally get a cinematic treatment of one of the most acclaimed composers more people should know about. I first heard of Joseph Bologne aka Chevalier de Saint-Georges a few years ago when I saw his romantic comedy The Anonymous Lover at the Minnesota Opera, as part of a celebration for black composers.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is on a roll in portraying celebrated musicians as he played B.B. King in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis in the same year. This time he plays a French-Caribbean violinist and composer who’s published numerous acclaimed musical and stage works in the late 18th century.
Director Stephen Williams sets up the film with a ravishing opening scene that aptly demonstrates the ‘show don’t tell’ principle. We’re introduced to the protagonist’s extraordinary talent by placing him directly next to a figure most people associate with greatness: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen). Joseph earns the respect and admiration of Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) who bestows him with a knighthood, hence his title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. According to this biography.com article, Shakespeare’s Globe’s musical director is quoted as saying “Chevalier was unfairly called the ‘Black Mozart,’ it should really be in many cases Mozart who should be called the ‘White Chevalier.’”
Now, how did Bologne get to such a prestigious concert attended by the royal household? The script by Stefani Robinson offers a brief flashback of Joseph as a young boy when he was sent to a prestigious boarding school by his father, a wealthy plantation owner nobleman. For the most part, we see Joseph as an adult navigating his way into French society and always struggling to fit in and be accepted, inevitably facing racism and bigotry everywhere he goes. His only friend is Philippe (Alex Fitzalan) who’s critical of the monarchy and later proves key to Joseph’s journey to lead the revolution.
I feel like there’s more to Chevalier’s story that would warrant a limited series treatment, there’s so much to this multi-hyphenated artist that a 2-hour movie simply can’t fully cover. The movie barely scratched the surface in terms of his complex relationship with the French Queen, which apparently became a blessing and a curse for Joseph. She was initially an ally but later gave in to high society’s pressure to put Chevalier ‘in his place,’ even going so far as denying him his rightful position of being the head of the Opera. There’s also Chevalier’s military career that would’ve been interesting to explore as well.
Two more women play instrumental roles in shaping Joseph’s life. His Senegalese mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) suddenly arrives in France and comes to live with him in his posh Parisian apartment. Around the same time, he begins an illicit romance with the married Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) whose husband is a racist military-minded Marquis (Marton Csokas). The romance feels a bit too mawkish, though it does show Joseph’s vulnerability that brings him moments of joy as well as tragic loss in his life. I was more captivated by his initially-testy relationship with his mother, which is realistic given the contrast of their place in the world.
Production-wise, this is a good-looking period piece with lush production design and set pieces, lavish costumes, as well as an evocative score by Kris Bowers. I read that Bowers studied Chevalier’s music and melodies, which lends authenticity not just to that period but to the character.
In terms of casting, I’ve been a big fan of Harrison’s work since Waves, The High Note, and Cyrano, and I think he’s got the sensual swagger as well as sensitivity to portray the title role. He’s so dedicated to the role that he practiced learning the violin extensively for five months to prepare for this. I love seeing Minnie Driver but she’s woefully underutilized as a French noblewoman resentful of Joseph when he refuses his advances. Weaving is usually terrific in the few things I’ve seen her in but she comes across as melodramatic here, which likely is the direction she was given. Boynton is serviceable but not particularly memorable here as the free-spirited Austrian princess.
Now, even after a quick reading about his life, there are some historical inaccuracies as well as artistic liberties taken, but I believe Williams does Chevalier’s story justice overall. It does leave me wanting more, but I suppose that is a good thing as we should be compelled to seek out and appreciate his work that was erased by history. In the end title credits, it reads that it was Napoleon himself who ordered to have his works destroyed after he re-instated slavery in 1799.
As the movie starts with Joseph playing the violin at a concert, it ends in a similar fashion but goes beyond him trying to prove himself as an artist. Instead, he uses his place in society to fight injustices in his time and make a difference. It’s an appropriately dazzling finale exemplifying powerful Black excellence to leave audiences with.
5 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: CHEVALIER (2022) – Kelvin Harrison Jr. is exquisite as an 18th-century musical virtuoso criminally erased by history”
I’ve heard excellent things about this film as I hope to see it on a streaming service near me soon.
I’m glad they finally made a film about Chevalier but I think a miniseries of his life would’ve been able to explore more of it.
My theater had this for a week then got rid of it. I hope someone picks it up for streaming, as I wanted to see it.
It almost left my local theaters so I had to rush to see it as I wanted to see it on the big screen.
Pingback: Alliance Lately: Issue No. 75 – The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance