A biopic on 18th century virtuoso violinist and composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges, featuring Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Waves,” “Cyrano”) in the title role, “Chevalier” is a delicately assembled cinematic Fabergé egg.
If you watch the film (premiering at the Toronto Film Festival) with the sound off, it can easily be mistaken for a French studio production made in adherence to the Tradition of Quality. But while it purports to celebrate a forgotten historical figure, much of the plot is decidedly ahistorical.
It opens in pre-revolution France, with Joseph crashing a Mozart concert and challenging the prodigy to a violin dual, something like the 18th century Parisian equivalent of Verzuz. While Mozart aims to school the brash unknown and deliver a lesson in humility, Joseph has the goods to upstage him and thoroughly enrapture the audience.
The story then resets to Joseph’s childhood, with his father, plantation owner George Bologne (Jim High, “Knightfall”), dropping him off at a music conservatory. Headmaster La Boissière (Ben Bradshaw, “The Office” UK) is reluctant to enroll Joseph, a mixed-race child of a slave, born out of wedlock. The optics seem to be the issue, though La Boissière does bring up the valid point that Joseph will have a hard time fitting in. The youngster manages to get through the door on the strength of his playing, but he must endure his peers’ brutal beatings.
In a fencing match, Joseph impresses Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who in turn anoints him Chevalier de Saint Georges. His quick rise to prominence affords him fame, wealth and a libertine lifestyle, but his ambition seemingly knows no bounds. He has eyes for opera singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), who is married to the powerful Marquis Montalembert (Marton Csokas, “The Last Duel”).
Joseph also vies to become the head of the Paris Opera and challenges his main competition to a duel of composing the superior opera. The chevalier soon finds out that talent alone can only carry him so far in a society that remains focused on the color of his skin. Despite his association with Marie Antoinette, there are limits to how much she is willing to extend herself in the face of her waning popularity.
From early on, during the candlelit Mozart concert, Jess Hall’s cinematography and lighting perfectly capture the refined aesthetics of a French period drama. It’s a minor detail, but filmmakers often either gloss over the fact that electricity did not exist at the time, or they hope that we won’t notice. Period dramas tend to score easy points just on visuals, and “Chevalier” is no exception. Art direction by Gemma Randall, production design by Karen Murphy (“Elvis”), costume design by Oliver Garcia (“England Is Mine”), and set decoration by Lotty Sanna (also at TIFF with “Catherine Called Birdy”) all contribute to the kind of eye candy viewers have come to expect.
The score by Kris Bowers (“Green Book”) and the orchestrations by Sean Barrett and Jonathan Beard definitely propel the music to the forefront, appropriate for this particular biopic. The sound editing and mixing also stand out during the violin duel, with stereo sound that helps distinguish who’s playing.
“Bridgerton” and “Mr. Malcolm’s List” have attempted corrective period representation of people of color, but it’s equally necessary to have depictions actually rooted in fact and not escapist fantasy. Writer Stefani Robinson (“Atlanta,” TV’s “What We Do in the Shadows”) here opts for sort of a paint-by-numbers screenplay. While one should always take Wikipedia with a grain of salt, its entry on the Chevalier de Saint-Georges truly bears little resemblance to this film. Filmmakers should be afforded some artistic license, but Robinson seems to just namedrop without properly honoring Bologne’s real legacy.
In overdramatizing historical facts to a point beyond recognition, the film comes dangerously close to reducing real-life challenges such as racism, oppression, glass ceilings and other injustices to mere dramatic tropes for creating garden-variety trauma porn. During the revolution, Bologne served as a colonel in the first all-black regiment in Europe, but this factoid is mentioned only in the end-credit titles. One can argue that perhaps that’s fodder for another film, but it’s far more interesting than some of the stuff Robinson has conjured up.
The acting is mostly underwhelming. As written, the character of Joseph seems to call for a performance teeming with flamboyance and panache, something like Tom Hulce from “Amadeus.” Harrison’s turn lacks personality and energy for the most part, and the same can unfortunately be said about most of the cast members. Minnie Driver is the only exception as La Guimard, who propositions and gets spurned by Joseph. She nails that period-piece version of a delightful, vampy villainess.
Director Stephen Williams, who has been working in TV steadily since his 1995 debut feature, “Soul Survivor,” proves to be an accomplished visual storyteller with an eye for mise en scène. Unfortunately, the visuals hardly make up for the shortcomings of the script and the acting. While “Chevalier” is by no means terrible, it seems like such a huge missed opportunity for an important historical figure to have finally gotten his due.
“Chevalier” will be released in the U.S. by Searchlight Pictures.