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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Charlotte O'Sullivan

Chevalier movie review: the erasure from history of this Caribbean-born maestro should make us all livid

Kelvin Harrison Jr is especially mesmerising when playing gifted characters whose multi-faceted brilliance can’t protect them from alienation, despair and anger (Waves; Monster; Luce). Excellent at mapping the limits of excellence, the 28 year-old American actor is again reliably compelling as the real-life 18th century marvel, violinist and composer Joseph Bologne, whose almost total erasure from history should make us all spit with rage.

In this playful biopic, winning, initially, is the name of the game. Jaunty Joseph – born in Guadeloupe, the illegitimate son of a Senegalese maid and plantation-owning Frenchman – is first seen having a violin play-off, in Paris, with a peevish Mozart, over whom our hero triumphs.

When he routs a foe during a fencing match, Bologne catches the eye of self-styled rebel Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). It’s the queen who gives Joseph the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges and indulges his desire to be in charge of the the Paris Opera, which leads to a fierce contest between Joseph and a rival composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes).

With yet another victory seemingly on the cards, Joseph even manages to score when it comes to true love, as he and Samara Weaving’s married, angel-voiced aristocrat, Marie Josephine, tumble happily into bed. It’s a wonderful world. Right?

The magic of Stefani Robinson’s script is that we have so many clues, from the start, that Joseph isn’t so much beating the system as propping it up. When he starts to lose, and to be viewed as a loser, his eyes are opened to the iniquities of pre-revolutionary France, not to mention the hypocrisy of his patron. Yes, Marie Antoinette can be progressive. But only when it suits her.

Lucy Boynton as Marie Antoinette (20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.)

As a portrait of a thrillingly toxic friendship, Chevalier hits all the right notes. And if Boynton shines as the wily royal, Ronke Adekoluejo as Joseph’s salty, culturally proud mum, who suddenly shows up in Paris after the death of his father, and Minnie Driver as opera diva, La Guimard, ageing disgracefully and spiteful to boot, also manage to give their characters depth. Joseph, drilled into viewing all men as rivals, is wont to under-estimate older women. Big mistake.

Robinson and director Stephen Williams aren’t serving up a history lesson – Bologne almost certainly didn’t stick it to Mozart on stage; Joseph’s parents both joined him in Paris when he was nine. What’s being offered, instead is a woozy, and at times hallucinatory, portrait of a man forced to re-think what it means to belong.

Harrison Jr will also play Jean-Michel Basquiat in upcoming biopic, Samo Lives. More anguish. More excellence. Bring it on.

107mins, cert 12A

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