TIFF wasn’t kidding when they said they were welcoming director Stephen Williams back after pivoting into prestige television. It’s been 27 years since his theatrical debut Soul Survivor, with a laundry list of all your favorite shows in the meantime. Which just goes to prove that sometimes it’s all about the right project bringing you back into the fold. And it seems a script by rising star Stefani Robinson (coming from FX shows Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows herself) about the first-known classical composer of African ancestry, Joseph Bologne (also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges), was exactly that. A stirring tribute to a man of many talents, Chevalier gorgeously gives a once-forgotten virtuoso violinist the cinematic treatment.
And what a way to introduce him. We assume the film will reveal the man playing violin onstage to be the titular subject until he turns donning a white complexion. He finishes his piece, smiles at the audience, and introduces himself (“for anyone unaware”) as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s only when he asks for requests (an absurdly hilarious conceit with numbers of compositions being lobbed back) that we finally meet Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) confidently walking down the aisle to both suggest “No. 5” and volunteer himself as accompaniment. What ensues is akin to a rap battle as they thrill the audience and declare war upon each other before Mozart asks who this musician that stole his show is (with one of the better PG-13 f-bombs this year).
That’s when we receive the Cliffs Notes exposition wherein it’s explained he was stolen by his aristocratic father Georges (Jim High) from the enslaved woman he raped (Ronke Adekoluejo) in the French colony of Guadeloupe due to the boy’s awe-inspiring aptitude for violin. Joseph is educated in France and ultimately establishes himself as a man of note when Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) bestows the Chevalier title and invites him to her court. Despite her praise, however, he’s still seen by those of means as inferior—unable to wed anyone of his status and forced to give it up if marrying anyone below. The majority of the film is thus about a competition. The Queen can’t gift him directorship of the Paris Opera, but he can win it.
Robinson’s script plays fast and loose with the facts and timeline to build drama necessary to make this fight for what should be rightfully his, by merit alone, the emotional gravitas necessary to captivate. There’s heated rivalry (Christoph Willibald Gluck isn’t even French), forbidden romance (Joseph falls for Samara Weaving’s Marie-Josephine, his preferred leading lady in the opera he’ll write for the contest and wife to the crown’s trusted and ruthless Montalembert, as played by Marton Csokas). And the beginnings of revolution as shown by Bologne’s best friend Philippe’s (Alex Fitzalan) attempts to unite the republic against excesses of the ruling class. While the present will always be an uphill battle, the wounds Joseph must likely endure could prove exactly what’s needed to win the future.
It’s akin to an origin story—Bologne’s radicalization to the fact that all these nice things being a Frenchman with a title provides are really just hollow trinkets. He’s a man without purpose beyond his talent; when that’s no longer good enough due to politics taking precedence over friendship, he becomes lost in the pain of what was taken from him and the uncertainty of what he might still be allowed within a world that demands he ask permission first. This narrative drive is a worthwhile evolution, even if it plays by the numbers. For all the verve of that opening sequence and style of an equally powerful final few showstoppers, the middle portion can feel pedestrian by comparison, yet effective thanks to Harrison Jr.’s fantastic lead performance.
He’s always great, but his handle on this material as it asks him to be both brashly confident and genuinely endearing is wonderful. This mix was necessary for Bologne to survive. His father warned him that he would not be welcomed in France, but to be “perfect” anyway since no one could ever disparage a “perfect Frenchman.” That thinking is, of course, contingent on Frenchmen acknowledging that he is one of them. While that’s easy for them to do when his existence benefits them, however, few will continue to supply him that courtesy once it doesn’t. Joseph’s ego ultimately gets the best of himself by believing his connections and genius truly are enough—despite everything his own history disproves. The ensuing awakening is devastating because of its orchestrators.
The rest of the cast is great too. Most come and go (Minnie Driver plays a crucial if one-dimensional plot point) with only Weaving and Sian Clifford as her cousin (and Bologne’s producer) Madame de Genlis getting the meat necessary to feel like more than obstacles and / or shortcuts (although Boynton does well to supply the Queen a welcome level of shame once the tide turns). Marie-Josephine is an inspiring and headstrong character that unfortunately lived in a time where those attributes were ignored by those with the ability to change things. She and Joseph’s love is the sort that could seemingly move mountains if only they were allowed the room to do so without risking the other’s death. Although their separation would surely kill them a little regardless.
It needs to feel that strong because it propels everything forward. Their love empowers Joseph to truly think for himself and its tragic consequences get him to finally embrace his identity. These are the events that shape the man who would go on to serve as colonel of the first all-Black regiment in Europe during the French Revolution—something you would not guess, considering the posh man we meet at the beginning. Not that we can’t see the fire burning within as he pushes to embarrass Mozart in front of his fans or his self-assuredness that he had no equal. I only wish the filmmakers continued with the off-kilter, quasi-apocryphal nature of that start. It promised a break from convention that never quite materialized—whatever the unquestioned, overall success.
Chevalier premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released by Searchlight Pictures.