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Michael Balderston

Chevalier review: Kelvin Harrison Jr. demands your attention in historical drama

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier

We've seen rap battles in 8 Mile and riff offs in Pitch Perfect, but Chevalier presents the classical music equivalent in its opening moments. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen) is giving a concert in Paris much to the delight of the audience when a voice from the crowd asks if he may play with him on stage. Ever the showman, Mozart agrees, only to be surprised when the boasting violinist is Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a Black violinist. Any preconceptions Mozart has about Joseph's abilities are quickly put to bed, as he shows up Mozart and wins the crowd. If it were modern day, Joseph would drop the mic as he exited the stage.

This is we are introduced to Joseph Bologne, a real-life virtuoso and composer who, as the movie presents it, is the equivalent of a rock star during the French Revolution. It's a great opening that puts the spotlight of the movie on Harrison and the classical music, hooking audiences with a leading man they may not be as familiar with and a style of music that is not exactly topping the charts. That, along with its message of choice and knowing your worth even when others look down on you is enough to make Chevalier a good watch, though it also overshadows other elements that could have brought the story to the next level.

If you don't know who Kelvin Harrison Jr. is, he is a star on the rise. Before Chevalier, he earned praise for performances in indie movies Luce and Waves, while having supporting roles in projects like Godfather of Harlem and Elvis. Here he is given the chance to stand out as the lead and he does not falter. He gives Joseph a glowing confidence, even as he carries a chip on his shoulder, which makes it all the more powerful when his life comes crashing down as his perceived friends fail to support him, revealing their true feelings about his race.

Of course, it's a historical drama set in the 18th century, so we all know that dramatic shift was on the way. While director Stephen Williams and writer Stefani Robinson don't reinvent the wheel with Cheavlier (Joseph may resemble a rock and roll star, but the story sticks to its time period trappings), it still is a well constructed story brought to life in an engrossing and effective way. 

That includes the execution of its message. Not so subtle hints are dropped throughout but it is all brought home with a monologue delivered by Joseph's mother, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo): the world Joseph lives in is manipulated against him, but the one thing that no one can take away is his individual choice to fight that injustice.

Ronke Adekoluejo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Chevalier (Image credit: Larry Horricks/Searchlight Pictures)

Playing parallel to that and Joseph's story is the French Revolution, but the movie never effectively weaves that historical event into its own story. The feelings against the French monarchy, particularly Marie Antoinette, and the budding ideas of revolution are discussed here and there. However, the moment never feels big enough. Even the final concert that Joseph holds in support of the French people and against the wishes of Antoinette doesn't live up to the significance of the historical moment, focusing more on Joseph's personal triumph.

The good thing for Chevalier is that it is not a movie about the French Revolution, it's about Joseph, so the fact that the French Revolution is put on the back burner is not a fatal flaw, it just may have given the movie a bit more of an epic feel. That being said, like the opening, the final moments confirm that Joseph is a musical genius and a star and will send you out on a high note.

Some other quick kudos to give out: the costume design is gorgeous from Oliver Garcia, while the supporting ladies of the movie — Adekoluejo, Samara Weaving and Lucy Boynton — all deliver strong work.

But Chevalier is the Kelvin Harrison Jr. show, and he plays it like a fiddle. He brings a spark to a musician from nearly 300 years ago, reinvigorating his story and his work. Simply put, Chevalier is the type of well-made, adult drama that we often bemoan there was more of. Perhaps it doesn't go as big in the finale as it could have, but watch it and you'll be captured by the music, the story and the leading performance.

Chevalier is playing in US movie theaters as of April 21.

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