Most cinephiles have experienced biopics about classical music artists that attempt to add more drama to their lore, whether it is genuine or not. The story of talented composer/musician Joseph Bologne is unique in that not many people know his story, nor do they know the real struggles he faced in expressing his art and craft. Chevalier serves as a moving and realistic telling of Bologne’s story as a Black French-Carribbean artist whose talents often outshined those of his contemporaries. Still, his rise to success was held back due to prejudice toward people of color.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. stars as the titular Chevalier Joseph Bologne, an 18th-century gifted musician who manages to charm France’s monarch Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) to such an extent that she offers him the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The Chevalier, however, comes from a very controversial background. His father is the white French George de Bologne Saint-Georges, and his mother is an enslaved Senegalese person. Despite the color of his skin, Joseph’s father decides to raise his son in what was considered a proper French upbringing, with most of the benefits of being a “legitimate” French aristocratic child.
As an adult, the confident and brilliant Joseph proves himself worthy of acceptance within the music community. He desires even more approval and acclaim within the prejudiced nobility and upper class, which usually celebrates and honors such tremendous talent. Unfortunately, the more success and glory he receives, the Chevalier encounters even more racism from those jealous of his abilities and those who refuse to grant him the success he deserves.
Written by Stefani Robinson and directed by Stephen Williams, Chevalier succeeds as a heartbreaking and moving piece of cinema that gives Joseph Bologne the respect and honor the musician/composer deserves. The movie has a certain predictability, as most audiences will already know that the prejudice of the time will eventually derail Bologne’s aspirations and passions. Still, the filmmakers succeed in building up the tension in the narrative to where the audience needs to know precisely when the other shoe will drop.
Chevalier has an exceptional cast that fills the roles perfectly. I was particularly pleased with the performances of Samara Weaving, who stars as Marie-Josephine de Comarieu de Montalember, a gifted singer who not impresses the Chevalier, but also kindles a romantic interest. Lucy Boynton also performs well as Marie Antoinette, the French monarch who admires Bologne’s talent but knows she cannot elevate his status more than society will allow. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. impresses me again with his confident and sometimes naive take on the Chevalier Joseph Bologne. The actor gives a commanding performance which makes the character very charismatic, but also shows his weaknesses regarding his near cluelessness.
While the filmmakers do a great job presenting this story, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. helps drive this movie deep into the hearts of its audience members. As I said previously, the film does have its elements of predictability, but the audience will want the Chevalier to win, despite his impossible odds. The fact that the filmmakers and actors can elicit this response from the audience, despite a certain level of transparency, makes this movie all the more effective in what it accomplishes.