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Review: Chevalier is the Right Kind of Biopic

Any film where the protagonist bests Mozart in the first five minutes isn’t going to follow the usual biopic formula. And Chevalier seeks to subvert the traditional biopic narrative throughout. It revels in its subject matter, as a diverting story of a man long overdue his place in cinematic history.

Chevalier concerns Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr), born in 1975 to an enslaved Guadeloupean mother, Nanon (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo) and her white plantation ‘owner’ Georges de Bologne. In an unexpected move (for the times), Georges installs Joseph, a talented violinist, at a renowned Parisian boarding school. Despite being bullied, Joseph excels at composition and fencing, attracting Queen Marie Antoinette’s (Lucy Boynton) attention, who eventually knights him as a ‘Chevalier’ and makes him her favoured companion. Joseph enjoys his elevated social status, becoming a ladies man. But he has one goal, to become the director of the Paris Opera over his lead opponent, the white German composer, Christoph Gluck. Marie Antoinette agrees to award the position to whomever writes and performs the best original opera. Joseph sets tongues wagging by hiring his muse, the Comtesse de Genlis (Samara Weaving), as the lead in his opera, behind her husband, the Marquis de Montalembert’s, back. Chevalier compares Joseph’s trials and tribulations to those of the French people, who turn on the French royal family’s rule as the French court turns on him.

The fact that Bologne’s story had been largely exorcised from history is in itself a reason to watch this film. A second reason is that Chevalier is a sumptuous period piece full of glorious music. It’s fascinating story is told with a modern edge.

Director Stephen Williams uses the film as an allegory for today’s racial division, with Joseph coming across as immensely talented, horribly discriminated against and perpetually haughty. Harrison Jr certainly makes an impression, his Joseph is a commanding presence, if a little anachronistic in his movements, his defiance of convention and on occasion, his wobbling accent.

Harrison Jr’s performance rightfully dominates the film, yet Williams makes room for many female characters, giving Adekoluejo, Boynton, Weaving and Minnie Driver (as an opera star) plenty to do. Williams even tries to reference the women’s movement, but, as it should be, this is a moving story of anti-back racism and triumph over adversity.

Chevalier makes some interesting political choices as the story concludes. It seeks to align the plight of a conductor-composer with incomparable wealth and success with the plight of the French underclasses, who would likely have despised the Chevalier as much as the King and Queen. Chevalier works best as a celebration of what Joseph achieved against the odds. He won’t be forgotten now.

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