April 21, 2023 / Searchlight Pictures
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Marton Csokas, Minnie Driver
Based on the true story of composer Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), 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.
Written By Darren
Rating 4 out of 5
Chevalier turns the biopic spotlight to classical composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a long forgotten composer because of political scandal which the film explores, brought to life with excellent music, production design and a truly outstanding performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Everyone knows classical composers such as Mozart and Bach, whose music have stood the test of time. But very few know the name Joseph Bologne, who was actually working at the same time as Mozart in Paris and composing equally impressive music. Because of his status in French society and his political views, Bologne was tragically forgotten by history, but his music is still being uncovered by music historians to this date and given the recognition it deserves. While this film does not offer much new to the biopic genre in terms of filmmaking techniques, the great performances due Bologne’s story justice and help give him the broad credit amongst general audiences that he is long due.
Instead of providing the broad overview of Bologne’s entire life that most music biopics tend to do, after briefly touching on his childhood, Chevalier primarily focuses on Bologne as he is trying to secure the head position at the Paris Opera in 1776. At this time, France was on the brink of the French Revolution with civil unrest and dissatisfaction with the monarchy. Exploring not only his music, but his friendship with Queen Marie-Antoinette and his affair with Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, the film chronicles Bologne’s life leading up to the beginning of the French Revolution and his ill-fated love affair that was intertangled with his music.
After countless music biopics based on popular artists, having one released on a classical composer is a nice change in tune. Gone are the pop hits that the audience can sing along too, replaced by excellent classical compositions. Bologne’s original compositions make up the majority of the film’s music, with some excellent arrangements by Michael Abels such as the violin duel (which is one of the most enthralling and exciting opening sequences of the entire year so far) and the music from Ernestine. Kris Bowers’ original score does an excellent job matching the style of Bologne’s compositions, making the changes between the score and the historical music seamless. And with the focus of the film being music, you could not ask for a better team of composers working on the film to fill it with such rich and engaging music.
The story itself is fascinating. It’s primarily a historical drama, focusing extensively on the social situation in France during 1776 that conducted Bologne’s life trajectory. There are themes of racism at play, with the upper class French society not accepting of Bologne, seeping into the romantic storyline and determines Bologne’s future. It's an interesting story of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and revolution, all working together to create a fascinating character portrayal of Bologne that is sure to captivate audiences and easily fills the roughly hour and forty five minute run time.
With the film being a character study of Bologne, it’s a showcase role for lead actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., and he is sublime as Bologne. Filling each scene with a sophistication, Harrison Jr. is a tour de force that makes the film a marvelous watch. His performance fills the entire film, taking the audience on a journey with his character’s arc. Harrison Jr. makes watching this young man come to terms with his place in society due to the colour of his skin heartbreaking as the energy and adoration for music he brings to the performance is infectious towards the audience, which makes his rejection that much harder to swallow. While the story is not unique to Bologne, as it has happened to too many African Americans over and over again in history, Harrison Jr. makes it one film you need to see.
In the two main supporting roles are Samara Weaving as Marie-Josephine de Montalembert and Lucy Boynton as Queen Marie Antoinette, both of whom are excellent. Weaving crafts a beautiful romance with Harrison Jr., helping to build an infectious energy that sweeps you up in the story and helps set the audience up for the impending heartbreak. Much like Harrison Jr.’s performance, there is a sophistication that Weaving brings to the role as well as a warmth and compassion, but also coldness when required. Boynton on the other hand plays an understated Antoinette. While dolled up in extravagant costumes, Boynton makes Antoinette a cunning queen who will use anybody and anyone for her personal entertainment, and then casts them aside just as easily. By the third act, Boynton finds a true darkness to Antoinette which helps create the dramatic ending to the film.
Being a period piece, there is a lot of great design in the film. Most notably, the costumes are extravagant and gorgeous, capturing the style of France in the 1770s. From gorgeous ball gowns, to the vibrant costumes of the African Americans in Paris that are distinctively not as elegant as the high society costumes, to the tailored suits worn by Bologne, each costume is incredible. Equally as impressive is the production design to recreate the eighteenth century with the real life locations in Prague easily masquerading as Paris.
Brought to life by an incredible lead performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr., once again proving himself as one of the most exciting young actors, Chevalier is the perfect film for period piece biopic fans and classical music lovers alike. From outstanding costumes and sets, an incredibly talented lead cast led confidently by the excellent Kelvin Harrison Jr., and a great soundtrack of classical music from Joseph Bologne himself, Chevalier is one drama you don’t want to miss.