Kelvin Harrison Jr. Stars in an Epic of Romance, Race & Revolution in 'Chevalier'

Picture shows: Chevalier (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) holds his violin and bow in front of an orchestra.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios

The story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), composer, violinist, and fencer, deserves to be told, and Searchlight Pictures’ Chevalier, directed by Stephen Williams (Watchmen) with a script by Stefani Robinson (Atlanta) is a terrific movie. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Elvis) in the title role, with a great supporting cast and stunning visuals, immerses us in Parisian life in the early days of the French Revolution.

Filmed in Prague, the settings are gorgeous and opulent (with the exception of some clunky CGI), from the decadence of the Court to the scenes of everyday life in a multiracial Paris. Revolution is in the air. We see people marching in the streets and meeting to discuss how a new France can be created. It was a time when women, not just Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), had agency and influence.

The movie reveals a sensitive and moving portrait of a Black man who is adored and reviled, constantly judged by his white contemporaries, and never wholly accepted despite his musical genius. Harrison, who began his career in 12 Years a Slave and earned a Screen Actors Guild Award as part of The Trial of the Chicago 7 ensemble, steps into the spotlight in a lead role deserving of awards love.

Picture shows: Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Joseph Bologne, with a sword in a duel.

Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios.

Joseph’s plantation owner father, Georges Bologne (Jim High), decides his talented son’s only chance is a Paris education and takes him from his enslaved mother. But from his arrival in Paris, he’s subjected to the crude racism of the time; in one breath, the headmaster of the Parisian school (Ben Bradshaw) gently tells young Joseph and his father that it might not be the right place for him, followed by racial slurs of breathtaking ignorance and cruelty.

After getting beaten up at school, Joseph learns to fight, excelling academically and musically. He becomes famous as a fencer gaining the attention of Marie Antoinette, who bestows on him the title of “Chevalier,” instantly raising him to an aristocrat. However, he’s still regarded as a freak of nature, always an outsider.

His musical debut, when he gatecrashes one of Mozart’s concerts and challenges the young composer to a musical duel, is one of the best in the movie. Reminding us that this music is the rock and roll of its time, it’s powerful and immensely entertaining as the two of them strut their stuff onstage to the admiration of swooning women. He mixes with the aristocrats of the French court and becomes besties with Marie Antoinette (they giggle together at the opera).

Picture shows: Philippe Duke of Orleans (Alex Fizalan), Madame de Genlis (Sian Clifford), and Marie-Josephine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving).

Philippe Duke of Orleans (Alex Fizalan), Madame de Genlis (Sian Clifford), and Marie-Josephine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving)

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Naturally, Joseph makes enemies, like influential, aging diva La Guimard (Minnie Driver), who he rejects when she propositions him. He makes no secret that his ambition is to direct the Paris Opera. The Queen proposes a duel; each contender should write and present an opera. The city’s first choice, established composer Christopher Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), has all the contacts and clout.

Joseph joins forces with producer/librettist Madame de Genlis (Sian Clifford); it’s terrific to see a woman with this skill and expertise. Joseph wants singer Marie-Josephine de Comarieu (Samara Weaving) to be his leading lady. But her husband, Marquis Montalembert (Marton Csokas), forbids it, believing it will destroy her virtue. Eventually, Mme de Genlis persuades her to take it (her husband is off on military matters), and Marie-Josephine and Joseph fall in love.

Of course, it ends badly. La Guimard leads her fellow sopranos to petition the Queen to refuse Joseph the position because of his race. He is furious, realizing their friendship is illusionary. She blames public opinion, already critical of her excesses, which would sink further if she appointed Joseph to the position. Then the Marquis returns to find his wife involved in opera rehearsals, against his instructions. The affair is over, and Joseph barely escapes with his life.

Picture shows: Joseph (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his mother Nanon (Ronke Adékoluẹjo). He sits in front of a mirror while she braids his hair.

Joseph (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his mother Nanon (Ronke Adékoluẹjo).

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Joseph’s friend Philippe Duke of Orleans (Alex Fitzalan) suggests they go to England, where a solid abolitionist movement and a lively music scene exist. But Joseph, despite everything, identifies as French. He’s also still carrying a torch for Marie-Josephine, although the Code Noir, which specified the exact details of an enslaved person’s life, forbade interracial marriage. She is pregnant, probably with his child, and refuses to see him.

Upon Georges's death, Joseph’s mother, Nanon (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), comes to Paris and involves herself in the Black community. Joseph is conflicted by her presence as a reminder of his origins, but she bullies him into meeting her friends when he hits rock bottom. In a beautiful scene, he joins a drumming circle, sharing one with a young boy. It’s one of the high moments of the movie, signifying a breakthrough in their relationship and how he sees himself.

As a symbol, or perhaps fantasy, of France’s rebirth, the final scene has Joseph conducting a multiracial orchestra of both men and women musicians. It doesn’t have the impact of the duel with Mozart, and though the music is meant to be Joseph’s, sadly, it bears the hand of an arrangement by composer Kris Bowers who wrote the film’s soundtrack. But overall, it’s a great movie depicting time and place, and worth seeing for Harrison’s spectacular performance.

Chevalier is playing in theaters and is expected to stream on Hulu later in 2023.

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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