CHEVALIER – Review by Rachel West
An epic biopic of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Chevalier, is anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Directed by Stephen Williams with a script by Stefani Robinson, the film follows the rise of Bologne from his time as a young pupil through the ranks of the French court under Marie Antoinette (Lucy Bonton) amid the rising tide of the French Revolution. Filling in the facts with fiction, the story explores why Bologne’s contributions were erased from the history books.
Born to a French aristocratic father and an enslaved Senegalese mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) in Guadeloupe in 1745, Bologne was taken to France at the age of seven and educated amongst his white peers. With exceptional music talent and mastery of the violin at a young age, Bologne fought against the prevailing racism of 18th century Paris, mastering the art of fencing and becoming a Gendarme du roi or an officer of the king’s bodyguard as well as a chevalier, a person granted knighthood for his service to the country.
While his talents would also come second to his race, Bologne gained favour with Marie Antoinette. Convincing her to hold a competition for the post of the Paris Opera’s director, Bologne’s ego and talents convince him he is the man for the job and his opera Ernestine will revolutionize the Paris Opera and the French court. For his star, Bologne sets his sights on Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), wooing the young woman to defy her violent husband’s (Martin Csokas) wishes to become his leading lady. When a torrid love affair ensues, their romance puts not only the competition and opera in jeopardy, but Bologne’s life.
Robinson’s script hits all the right notes in Chevalier, capturing Bologne’s acceptance into French high society on the surface, but his stature and status is built upon a house of cards, ready to fall at any time. His worth as a man of mixed race is only as good as his art and money and though he has his share of friends and supporters, he will only ever be “other” within society. The structure of the film is so successful because we watch Bologne come to this inevitable conclusion for himself with Robinson’s rich social commentary showing how the composer can play by all the rules and still lose the game. It is no wonder Bologne eventually became part of the French Revolution when equal rights to all French people was declared, leading Bologne to serve as colonel for the first all-Black regiment in Europe in 1792.
Deftly directed by Williams with sumptuous costumes by Oliver Garcia and cinematography by Jess Hall, Chevalier is filled with rich performances and anchored by an enthralling performance by Harrison Jr. Building upon his breakout performance in Waves, Harrison Jr. delivers his best work yet with undeniable charisma. His Bologne is simultaneously proud, boastful, sexy and charming as he is vulnerable, scared, and defiant. For anyone not already familiar with Harrison Jr.’s work, Chevalier will have audiences paying attention, eager to see where his career takes him next.
His performance is bolstered by a supporting cast including Weaving who disappears into every role she takes. Nervously defiant of her husband’s wrath, Weaving’s Marie-Josephine is playful and purposeful, making her an excellent on-screen match for Harrison Jr.
Supporting roles for Minnie Driver as the spiteful, aging diva La Guimard makes an excellent foil for Bologne. Meanwhile in Sian Clifford’s talented Madame de Genlis he finds a kind co-conspirator whose own desire for fame as a writer and producer pairs perfectly with Bologne’s own drive. These roles could have easily been cast aside and relegated to caricatures and props for the main story, but here they are delightfully well-rounded and integrated into the larger story.
Chevalier, which premiered at TIFF in 2022, is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and perhaps the best film about a classical composer since Amadeus. Chevalier opens in cinemas on April 21.