2022, PG-13, 107 min. Directed by Stephen Williams. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adekoluejo, Minnie Driver, Alex Fitzalan, Sian Clifford, Marton Csokas.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., April 21, 2023

A cocky Joseph Bologne – the central figure of historical biopic Chevalier – brandishes his violin bow and fencing saber with the swagger of a young man who thinks he’s invincible. As played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Elvis, Waves) with bravado to spare, the 18th-century wunderkind musician and swordsman is a virtuoso superhero in breeches and powdered wig.

The extraordinary performances on the Paris stage and fencing piste come early in Chevalier: They set a bold and lively tone the remainder of the film has trouble matching. Instead, it melodramatically proceeds, trope by trope, as Bologne receives his comeuppance for believing in his own brilliance. Even as it valiantly labors to give this uncelebrated figure largely forgotten by history his due, Chevalier succeeds in revealing the astounding life of a man to an audience unfamiliar with him – which may be enough in itself.

The movie gets the biographical facts largely right, with some fudging here and there. Born on the Caribbean island colony of Guadeloupe in 1745 to a married white plantation owner and one of his Senegalese slaves, a teenaged Bologne is later sent a private academy in Paris. His wealthy aristocratic father does so to promote a sense of excellence in his illegitimate mixed-race son, a rare patriarchal move for the day. There, the musical prodigy is predictably bullied by his upper-class white classmates for being different, despite his evident achievements. He later crosses the threshold of respectability and societal acceptance after besting a fencing master whose fearmongering sponsor publicly refers to the young man of color as a “mulatto,” a belittling epithet used more than once here.

In the early sections of the film, the character of Bologne – knighted by royalty as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges in recognition of his lineage and accomplishments – feels modern and alive. He confidently inhabits the Parisian beau monde in the years preceding the French Revolution, making his artistic reputation as a composer of symphonies and navigating the salons of the French capital with an eye toward the ladies drawn to his exotic allure and talents. (The movie concocts an exaggerated BFF relationship with a flirty Queen Marie Antoinette played by Boynton, who’s dressed in delicious confectionary colors by Oliver Garcia.) But by the end of this well-intentioned biography scripted by Stefani Robinson (a WGA award winner for the FX series Atlanta), it’s reductively treating him as a symbol vaguely embodying the revolutionary rallying cry of "Égalité!" as the emerging Republic embraces the Rights of Man. It’s a rather grandiose narrative turn, needlessly stifling Chevalier with the mantle of self-importance.

A lot of attention – too much, really – is paid to an adulterous relationship with the Marquise Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Weaving) married to Marc René, Marquis de Montalembert (Csokas), a conservative military general. This storyline faithfully adheres to the basic particulars of the tragic affair, but it’s at the price of convincingly developing a legitimate political awakening in Bologne, a man who’s lived his entire adult life cushioned in comfortable privilege despite the racism he’s encountered. As it is, his enlightenment – the seeming raison d’être of Chevalier – appears foisted upon him, all for a disconcerting parting image of him walking through a street mob of his new peers with the expressionless intensity of the Terminator. Je reviendrai.

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Chevalier, Stephen Williams, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adekoluejo, Minnie Driver, Alex Fitzalan, Sian Clifford, Marton Csokas

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