In mid 18th Century France, a composer known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have audiences mesmerised by his undeniably talent as a musician and composer. The confidence in his art on stage separated Mozart from the rest in his field, and his name still lives on, synonymous with the greatest composers of that time, and ever.
But, one fateful night, a young black man challenges Mozart to a duel of violinists in an exciting, daring and entertaining show for the audience in attendance. That man was Joseph Bologne, the illegitimate son of an African slave mother and plantation owning father, who using his charm, wit and fencing abilities to rise through the ranks of French high society to become a knighted Chevalier de Saint Georges by Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and had an ambition to become a respected maestro of the Paris opera, overcoming the prejudices held by the ignorant elites regarding his race.
However, the Chevalier’s more rambunctious tendencies get the better of him when an affair with the beautifully voiced Marie Joesphiene (Samara Weaving) occurs whilst the two work on their opera together, leading Joseph down a dangerous path in which a fall from the high society leads him to become one of the key players in France’s revolution against the elite.
Chevalier’s opening scene hits with force as Joseph battles Mozart in a violin duel that has the energy and reminiscence of a rap battle from 8 Mile. The back and forth of two extremely talented musical geniuses is exciting to watch, but immediately establishes Joseph Bologne as a presence in the film and in this world. There’s humour, charm and excitement galore within the first 5 minutes of Chevalier, gleaming with a sense of anticipation of what’s to come.
Unfortunately, from that point on, Chevalier seems to lose that contemporary energy that would have set it apart from every other period piece film, even despite focusing on a character whose story has not been told before. The most frustrating part of Chevalier is the potential of what it could have been from that opening scene, mixed with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s electric performance. It just doesn’t reach the heights it started on, and sadly falls into the generic structure of the period piece drama.
In saying that, the film is still good. The more generic conventions that director Stephen Willams does follow in this film are done well. The sets, costumes and scale of Chevalier are captured with grandeur, giving an immersive sense of 18th century France. From a technical point of view, the film succeeds on all levels, and Williams’ direction is strong given his decades long experience in the world of TV, specifically HBO over the last few years. He has crafted a film that does all it can with the script it has, a commendable effort.
The highlight of Chevalier are the performances, specifically Samara Weaving and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Their chemistry drives the narrative, and both feel like they have a true understanding of their characters as individuals, and who they are together. The romance is real, and the excitement of its forbidden nature during those times heightens the feeling of that love on screen. But overall, this is Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s film, and he is a tour de force throughout.
The film covers a significant and lengthy period of Joseph Bologne’s life, and the changes that Joseph goes through in his life are adapted and replicated by Harrison Jr.’s performance. The nuances of the trials and triumphs of the Chevalier’s journey are seen in every frame that Harrison Jr. is on screen, and then the bursts of life and energy when he is on stage performing make for an engaging screen presence.
The foundations of Chevalier are strong. It’s a well made period era drama that boasts grand set designs and costumes, along with a standout performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a role of which the subject’s story deserves to be told. But the potential set by the energy of the film’s opening moments never reach those heights again, leaning into a more generic structure that feels like it could get lost into the chasm of the genre.
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