This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
The Pitch: You have heard of Mozart, Beethoven, and countless other European composers that helped shape music as we know it. However, it’s likely that you have never heard of Joseph Bologne, known professionally as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose work was largely destroyed when slavery was reinstated throughout France in 1802. It is an absolute shame, but thankfully, what has been preserved has been rediscovered over the years, establishing him as the first Black composer of the classical eras.
Now, his story, or at least some of it, has been adapted for the screen thanks to director Stephen Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson. Chevalier shows Bologne, played by Luce breakout Kelvin Harrison Jr., as he navigates pre-revolution Paris as a revered composer and the half-Black son of a slave master. Able to climb through the ranks of society due to his musical and academic skills, he finds himself extremely close to stardom, only for it all to come tumbling down. Chevalier melds fiction and reality in this exploration of class, identity, and tokenism.
No Reinvention of the Wheel: If you have seen any other musician biopic of the last few years, you probably know the formula that Chevalier follows. It starts with his beginnings, being sent to a prestigious school away from his enslaved mother (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo). Obviously, he proves himself to be a star pupil, excelling in music and language.
Later, he becomes a notable figure, schmoozing among notable figures of the time like Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who appoints him as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. However, after a star-crossed encounter with the secretive opera singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) and an opera-writing contest, Bologne’s life drastically changes. Amidst an identity crisis, he finds meaning once again in an important political event.
It’s a typical rinse-and-wash narrative, a formula that hasn’t been altered much in recent years. Because of this, Chevalier is extremely predictable – even if you have never heard of Bologne’s work before, you will know exactly how his story plays out, which is a bit of a shame. Then again, considering the obscurity in in which he still remains, it’s understandable that only the most basic version of his story gets adapted in a motion picture. It is also fair, though, to be a bit underwhelmed, despite the strong pacing of Williams’ directing.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. Remains a Star: Even if you know where his story is going, it is still a captivating one due to Harrison’s fiery performance. Sure, the Trial of the Chicago 7 star’s English/French accent ends up slipping a few more times than expected, but it is clear that he is giving his all even in the film’s quieter moments.
Harrison’s body language is confident yet meek; he’s a man that embraces being the center of attention, but likely can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t entirely because of his talents. There is one particularly devastating scene that serves as the culmination of all the complicated feelings Bologne likely experienced, and Harrison delivers it in a way that is guaranteed to break your heart.
The film’s supporting cast is aggressively fine; Weaving bounces well off of Harrison, even if the romantic chemistry between the two is a bit lackluster, and Boynton stops short of chewing the scenery as the ill-fated Queen of France. Minnie Driver, who plays an uptight and bitter opera singer (not for the first time), seems to have fun with her character.
However, Adékoluẹjo is the film’s heartbeat both in story and performance. She is the key to her son’s reevaluation of the world and his place in it, encouraging him to actually embrace what he has stifled down to appeal to the racist white elites of Parisian society. Her tender performance compliments Harrison’s better than any other scene partner of his, and Robinson’s script avoids placing her into the pitfalls of the wise but hollow motherly figure.
The Verdict: Even if you are only just now hearing about Bologne’s work, as mentioned, Chevalier‘s reliance on biopic tropes does it no favors, and the lighting and set design are pretty drab in comparison to the excellent costumes. However, it is also bolstered by the incredible performances of Harrison and Adékoluẹjo, the smart screenplay by Robinson, and Williams’ direction, especially in the opening and ending sequence.
The best way to describe the movie is a solid starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Bologne. It is not a definitive account by any means, and leaves plenty of room for viewers to do their own research. In the case of this particular subject, that research is critical — especially given his status as a composer who was nearly forced out of history.
Where to Watch: Chevalier premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival through Searchlight Pictures. Distribution plans for the film are currently unknown.