Movie Review: ‘Chevalier’ | Moviefone

Movie Review: ‘Chevalier’ | Moviefone

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film ‘Chevalier.’ Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

In theaters now, ‘Chevalier’ brings to screens a story that absolutely deserved to be told but ends up telling it in an immature and overly melodramatic way that makes it seem more like soap opera than even the opera performances that dot the story.

“Prodigy. Revolutionary. Legend.”

PG-131 hr 47 minApr 7th, 2023

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The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Bologne rises to improbable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer… Read the Plot

Does Chevalier have a true story at its core?

‘Chevalier’ is based on one of the most compelling (and sadly overlooked) real lives in history.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner. Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) rises to improbable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, complete with an ill-fated love affair Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) herself and her court.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film 'Chevalier.'

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film ‘Chevalier.’ Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

History with an issue

Bologne’s story is even more impressive than it sounds, especially since his talents and accomplishments were all but buried by those who came after him. When his father (a white and wealthy plantation owner) discovers his illegitimate son’s prodigious musical abilities in Guadeloupe, he brings Bologne to a prestigious academy. “Always be excellent”, he’s told, so as to win over his peers and superiors.

And “excellent” could certainly describe Bologne, who excelled in music, horse riding, fencing, and dancing. Granted the title of officer of the King’s Bodyguard –– which is where the “Chevalier” comes in –– he lived a life of inspiration and invention, of scandal and suffering. Today, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is remembered as the earliest European musician/composer of African descent to receive widespread critical acclaim.

It’s just a shame that this new movie of his life feels less like a well-constructed biopic and more like a paper written by a student more interested in linguistic flourishes and skipping to the juicier parts of the story than making the whole work.

Of course, there was no way that any one film could encompass all of Bologne’s life; short of a limited series, it would take an epic movie of hours’ length. And another problem is that much of his life, scoured from legitimate history books after his death, can only be accessed through anecdotal evidence and hearsay.

‘Chevalier,’ while it does work to compress some of the highlights (and painful lowlights) into its swift 107-minute running time, does so at the expense of a truly successful cinematic experience.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Director Stephen Williams on the set of 'Chevalier.'

(L to R) Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Director Stephen Williams on the set of ‘Chevalier.’ Photo Credit: Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. Copyright: ©20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Related Article: Movie Review: ‘Elvis’

The trouble with ‘Chevalier’

Even given the limitations of accurate history from which to draw, director Stephen Williams (a veteran of impressive TV including ‘Watchmen’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Counterpart’) and writer Stefani Robinson (who has worked on scripts for ‘Atlanta’ and ‘What We do in the Shadows’ among others) make some big leaps when it comes to dramatizing Bologne’s story.

The movie opens as it means to go on, with Chevalier confidently taking the stage at a concert being held by Mozart (Joseph Prowen) and playing the maestro off of it with his superior violin skills (so impressive are they that one woman nearly faints from the power of his music). That never, as far as history records, actually happened (Mozart did spend some time under the same roof as Bologne, so it’s at least believable that he would have heard his talented musical skills), but it’s one of the few moments where the movie truly comes alive without then dipping into cheap drama that doesn’t befit the man it purports to celebrate.

We hurtle from one event to another, none of them really given any subtlety or grounding. Complex issues such as social status, class and race are dealt with in the most surface level fashion possible, the ideas and issues brought up and dispensed with in swift order.

Towards the end, given that Bologne lived through the French Revolution (and fought on the side of the people, though that part of his story is relegated to an end-credit title card), it’s almost as though ‘Les Misérables’ breaks out in the middle of ‘Amadeus’, the two tones rarely sharing the screen with ease. Even before the revolution proper bubbles up, Bologne’s friends involved in the movement come across as parodies of the type.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Lucy Boynton in the film 'Chevalier.'

(L to R) Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Lucy Boynton in the film ‘Chevalier.’ Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Solid lead cast

The real shame is that the movie wastes good performances, particularly from Harrison Jr., who was so impressive in movies such as ‘Luce’, ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ and ‘Cyrano’. He grasps the chance to play Bologne fully, and though his accent fluctuates, he brings real compassion and energy to the lead role. He’s much better than the script and most of the movie around him.

As his primary love interest, Marie-Josephine, Samara Weaving also tries to punch through a relatively poorly written character, coming to life when she’s working opposite Harrison Jr. but otherwise left floundering (no matter how much the society at the time would force her into such a role) as a damsel in distress.

Part of that distress comes from her scowling, military-minded husband, Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas), who has no love for the arts and disapproves of his wife spending any time with Bologne, let alone performing his work. He’s a snarling villain, which –– again, might be fitting for an opera, but is just another embarrassment in a film such as this.

Harrison, Weaving and Lucy Boynton (as the ill-fated Queen) are the standouts here, but nothing else in ‘Chevalier’ lives up to the work they do.

Final Thoughts

As missed opportunities go, this is a big one –– long on its version of frothy style (it sometimes wants to be a Baz Luhrmann movie), it never commits to a tone that really works, and is more likely to leave you frustrated and underwhelmed. That’s almost a crime given the inspiring source material.

‘Chevalier’ receives 5.5 out of 10 stars.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film 'Chevalier.'

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film ‘Chevalier.’ Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

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‘Chevalier’ is produced by Element Pictures, and Searchlight Pictures. It is scheduled to release in theaters on April 21st, 2023.

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