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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Kermode

Chevalier review – entertainingly soapy portrait of a Black 18th-century maestro

Kelvin Harrison Jr, left, as Joseph Bologne in Chevalier. Alamy
‘An object of courtly desire’: Kelvin Harrison Jr, left, as Joseph Bologne in Chevalier. Alamy Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

In 1985, Miloš Forman’s screen adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage play Amadeus swept the Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars, including best picture. In that acclaimed film, F Murray Abraham’s Antonio Salieri seethed at the divine gift bestowed upon Tom Hulce’s “vulgar” Mozart – a rapscallion whom God appears to have mischievously made his instrument on Earth.

In the new biographical drama Chevalier, from writer Stefani Robinson (a Writers Guild of America and Emmy award winner for the TV series Atlanta) and director Stephen Williams, the polarities are reversed, with Mozart finding his celebrated genius overshadowed by that of a rival. That this rival would later be reductively referred to as the “Black Mozart” adds a further turn of the screw, although according to Bill Barclay, whose 2019 “play with orchestra” The Chevalier dramatised this story previously, “in many cases Mozart… should be called the ‘white Chevalier’”.

Actor and musician Kelvin Harrison Jr, who recently played blues legend BB King in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, commands the screen as Joseph Bologne, the son of an enslaved Senegalese mother and a French plantation owner in Guadeloupe. Having been sent by his father to boarding school in Paris, where he showed a prodigious talent for fencing and music, Joseph arrives at the Sofia Coppola-esque court of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who anoints him Chevalier de Saint-Georges – an extraordinarily elevated position, as jealous noblemen are quick to remind him, for someone of his background.

For a while, Joseph’s charms and talents make him an object of courtly desire – feted for his skills as a lover and a fighter as well as a composer and virtuoso violinist. An affair with Samara Weaving’s silver-throated Marie-Josephine enrages her bullying husband, the Marquis de Montalembert, played with a quietly terrifying scowl by Marton Csokas. But when prejudice and personal rivalries come between Bologne and an appointment at the Paris Opera, he finds new kinship among the rhubarbing rabble (“Liberté! Égalité!”) who are soon to be gathering at the gates of the Bastille, and to whom he lends musical support.

Described in its opening titles as a “prelude to revolution”, Chevalier is entertainingly soapy fare with an unabashedly brash and anachronistic approach to its 18th-century tale. Eye-catching costume and production design may help to lure in the multiplex heritage crowd (as the trailer suggests, this is a handsomely bewigged – and at times unwigged – affair), yet there’s more to the story’s timely edge than set dressing. Composer Michael Abels, who was in charge of the on-camera musical performances, tellingly describes Bologne’s electrifying opening violin showdown with Mozart as having “a modern, Jimi Hendrix-style tone” that prompts Amadeus to splutter (in true Eric Clapton fashion): “Who the fuck is that?” Meanwhile, fellow composer Kris Bowers adds a contemporary twist to cues inspired by Bologne’s compositions, with Joseph and Marie-Josephine’s affair playing out to the intertwined sounds of strings and piano, while a tune hummed by Joseph’s mother, Nanon (a terrifically powerful turn from Ronke Adekoluejo), riffs on a slave hymn motif that will later fire his revolutionary zeal.

There’s little subtlety in the politics of the piece, as fencing matches are explicitly mounted as battles of bloodlines, with Bologne hailed as “a true son of France” even as the old guard argues for outdated myths of racial “purity”. Later, he will be told pointedly that “opera is not fencing”, although the battling analogies continue apace. The cast seems to understand the broad-strokes register, none more so than Minnie Driver, who has a poisonously saucy time as spurned diva Marie-Madeleine Guimard, squeezing Carry On-style fun out of the words “collaboration” and “rehearsal” before baring her embittered teeth.

It’s arguable that there’s still a whole other movie to be made about Bologne, focusing on his role as a colonel in France’s first all-black military regiment (mentioned briefly in the closing credits) and his subsequent imprisonment during “la Terreur” (Napoleon later tried to write Bologne’s musical legacy out of history). Yet perhaps that is this frothy film’s strength: cherrypicking multiplex-friendly elements from a complex and still largely unknown life in a manner that leaves the audience wanting to know much more.

Watch a trailer for Chevalier.
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