Chevalier Review

Thursday 31 August 2023

Plot: Based on factual story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the illegitimate son of an African enslaved and a French plantation owner, who rises to heights in French society as a composer before an ill-fated love affair.

Film: Chevalier

Director: Stephen Williams

Writer: Stefani Robertson

Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton

Chevelier is based on the true story of Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr), born in Guadeloupe to plantation owner George de Bologne (Jim High) and Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), a slave in his possession. Joseph’s talents, particularly in music, sees him taken from his mother and dropped in a prestigious boarding school in France, a place that will nurture his gifts, but his heritage will make him a target to those around him. Some of last words he hears his father speak to him are “You must be excellent, always excellent,” and excellent is what Joseph becomes. His successes and charisma capture the attention of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), and her favour and the title she bestows onto him, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, catapult him into French high society. 

Now a trusted companion to the queen and popular member of court, Joseph wants more and wishes to become the director of the Paris Opera, to earn this title he must write an opera to impress the committee, for the lead he has eyes for only one singer, Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), but her husband, Marc-the Marquis de Montalembert (Marton Csokas), refuses for her to perform. It’s been a long time since Joseph was told no and he does his best to persuade Marie-Joseph because, despite many unattached suitors, he also wishes to pursue her romantically, she is not opposed.

A genre I’m always here for is sultry, big budget historical dramas and Chevalier is exactly that. Kelvin Harrison Jr plays the role of arrogant very well and because you see what it takes for Joseph to get to where he does, you aren’t put off by the entitlement because it’s earned, he has become the excellent French man his father wanted him to be. However, his continued affair with Marie-Joseph ends in a baby being born with dark skin, which her husband kills and this ends with Joseph becoming an outcast. 

Upon his father’s death, his mother is released and joins him in France, this reunion begins to humble Joseph and Nanon introduces him to his own culture and his people, in a way that he hadn’t since arriving in France. You start to see the two worlds coming together in a powerful moment where Joseph takes to the stage to perform in braids, rather than his usual powdered wig. Up until this point the background to this film has been building to the French Revolution, though for the most part it does stay in the background, we only see small glimpses of the civil unrest going on which leads to the finale of the film where we see the torches and people are beginning to rise up when Marc-RenĂ© arrives with the intention of killing Joseph, he is unsuccessful and Joseph walks from the theatre to more chaos and this is unfortunately where the film ends.

My main criticism with Chevalier is that this very much felt like half a story. While I enjoyed seeing his rise to fame, the title cards at the end of the film tell a brief synopsis of how the nobility and Marie-Antoinette in particular, being a main part of this film, lost their lives. Joseph goes on to lead the first all-black regiment in the of French Revolution, before slavery was reinstated in 1802 and most of Joseph’s music was destroyed and forgotten. The undoubtedly would be a much less empowering film but there was so much more of his life not portrayed that I want to know more.

Chevalier is a powerful, though brief, insight into a man I knew nothing about and whose story I wouldn’t have believed real if I hadn’t just watched it. Worth it alone for the way Kelvin Harrison Jr makes playing the violin look sexy.

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