Chevalier is a period piece about race and freedom. Set in France during the reign of Marie Antoinette, it is the true story of a brilliant composer/violinist, who happened to be black. Or a black man who happened to be a brilliant composer/violinist. I suppose it depends on your perspective. Anyway, it is full of classical music, beautiful costumes and sets. It is also strangely contemporary in its dialogue and pacing. Fast-moving and smart, it is a message movie where the message does not come at the expense of entertainment. It is a well-made, enjoyable movie.
My biggest complaint about Chevalier (102 minutes, without the end credits) is that this is a disappointingly conventional production about a man whose story is so large and captivating (at least as presented here; I had never heard of him before seeing this). It is so focused on politics and a love affair that sometimes it felt like the protagonist got lost amid all the historical importance.
A black man in 1700s France who was so amazingly talented that he found professional success and became friends with royalty (including Marie Antoinette herself) despite his race is remarkable. Not just his physical/intellectual gifts (in addition to his musical artistry, he was unmatched at fencing and had a way with words), but also the fact that he wouldn’t have risen up the social ranks merely by being great; he needed to be the greatest to ensure that France’s elite could not deny him his due. That material is fascinating. The rest is fine. It doesn’t live up to this exceptional life, yet it is still pretty good overall.
Joseph Bologne is the son of a slave and a slave owner. When his father leaves him at a French boarding school, young Joseph realizes that he needs to be the best at violin/fencing/etc. in order to survive. Many years later, the Queen bestows upon him the title of Chevalier and makes him a member of the upper class. The plot mostly follows his efforts to become the director of the Paris Opera and his struggle to gain respect in a society that could never respect a black person.
The Chevalier is played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in another very strong performance from him. The character has to toe the line between proud, bold and confident, and respectful to the white people who could easily destroy him on a whim. That he is occasionally allowed to step on that line and get away with it demonstrates just how much his music was appreciated (as well as how powerful it was to be a favorite of the Queen). The scenes where he uses his wits or his talents to overcome someone who longs to dismiss him are definitely the highlights (such as the riveting opening where he interrupts a performance by Mozart). Harrison is able to show the scared child underneath the ambition.
The parts about his life are compelling. The parts about the people of France rebelling against the monarchy are less interesting, since the movie isn’t really about it. Plus, it has been explored in much more detail elsewhere. I felt similarly toward the subplot concerning Marie-Josephine, a singer he falls for and tries to get to star in his opera. Harrison and Samara Weaving have a couple of decent conversations together. However, this section comes off as a distraction. There is some discussion of women’s rights, though not nearly enough is done with it to warrant its inclusion.
I would have preferred more on Joseph’s relationship with his mother, newly freed and sent to live with him, instead. That stuff has weight to it and fits comfortably with the rest of the plot. Unfortunately, his mother disappears for long stretches in favor of Marie-Josephine.
Regardless of those issues, I am glad I saw Chevalier. It taught me a piece of history and did so in an entertaining way. Even if I wish it had told a tighter story, there is a lot to like here.
3½ out of 5
Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph
Samara Weaving as Marie-Josephine
Lucy Boynton as Marie Antoinette
Ronke Adekoluejo as Nanon
Alex Fitzalan as Phillippe
Marton Csokas as Marquis De Montalembert
Minnie Driver as La Guimard
Directed by Stephen Williams
Written by Stefani Robinson