'Chevalier' review: Kelvin Harrison Jr. headlines forgettable biopic about prolific composer
Courtesy of Searchlight
You’d be forgiven if the name Joseph Bologne didn’t mean anything to you, but in the historical context of his musical contributions in and around the French Revolution, he was prolific. Finally getting his due in the conventional, and occasionally energetic biopic “Chevalier,” the title anointed to him by the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, after winning a prestigious dueling match, the former slave turned violinist later dubbed by many to be “the Black Mozart” is a fascinating character study diluted by routine biopic troupes. His rags-to-riches story, born to a married plantation owner in the French colony of Guadeloupe before wowing the world with his impeccable operatic works, is brought to life by Kelvin Harrison Jr., one of the finest young actors working today, who brings the screen presence of a confident rock star. As evident during the sizzling opening sequence where he challenges Wolfgang Mozart to a violin stand-off that plays like a rap battle.
Obviously, director Stephen Williams (TV’s “Watchmen,”) takes creative liberties (in real life, Mozart and Bologne were roommates), but the dramatic tension and winner-take-all approach is Bologne’s entire personality. Considering he’s a black man in the late 1700s and has lived a life marred by discrimination and racist bigotry, he must work harder than everyone else in the room in order to have a shot. “Chevalier” gets the point across, in a barebones history lesson type of demeanor, but at the expense of a story in need of more panache. The movie brushes through important historical moments, including politicized revolts and a romantic courtship between his muse Marie-Jospehine (Samara Weaving) who worked on many shows with him, failing to give a well rounded picture of his extensive accomplishments. It’s a good starter lesson on the man Bologne would eventually become, and if not for Harrison Jr. “Chevalier,” would need more than just a tune up.
After all, Chevalier’s swagger and charm makes him irresistible. It’s part of the reason Marie Antoninette (Lucy Boynton) keeps him around. Sure, he’s good at what he does on the musical scale, but those dashing looks are enough to make women forget about their husbands. For that aspect of the narrative to work, having someone of Harrison Jr’s caliber goes a long way and when he’s scorned by the musical community for the color of his skin, and taken for granted, he’s got the fire to throw it back in their faces. A drunken rant near the end of the film that completely eviscerates high society is a prime example.
While those scenes allot our main performance plenty of showy moments and he, for the most part, nails them, one wonders why “Chevalier,” tries jamming so much into a small package. The main plot, which revolves around Bologne trying to write and compose a worthy musical piece that’ll grant him the position of Paris’s opera director, the highest job in that field, feels so incomplete. The movie never captures the joys and admiration that comes with collaborating on an exceptional piece of theater nor does it flesh out Bologne’s romance with Marie-Josephine beyond intermittent montages. To her credit, Weaving excels playing the captive wife of stern general Marquis De Montalembert (played with a laughable cartoonish smee by Marton Csokas) but her entire character’s feminist mentality is undercut by Steafini Robinson’s one dimensional writing, which fails to elevate her beyond trapped housewife.
The heritage of Bolonge is also brought into question numerous times and though we meet his mother late in the film (Ronke Adekoluejo), her inclusion only serves as a mandate as she’s not given much to do other than stand idle and be supportive. I'd imagine them being separated at birth and then reunited late in life would spark some conversation or rekindling? But in “Chevalier,” it’s thrown on the sidelines. There’s even a point where Bolonge tells the Queen he’s always defended her from salacious rumors after she gives him bad news and he begs for her help. The film wants us to believe these two were best friends, yet their entire relationship is reduced to brief interactions.
“Chevalier" might get style points for shedding light on a forgotten musician long overdue for the spotlight, but this by-the-book retelling has the narrative integrity of a Wikipedia page.
CHEVALIER is now playing in theaters.