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Movie Reviews

Chevalier ★★★★



Director: Stephen Williams

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Minnie Driver

Released: 9th June 2023

Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint- Georges may not have been a household name. Still, this biopic will hopefully change the status quo about one of the first Black composers in history. Chevalier was a musical maestro in 18th century France, a virtuoso violinist and composer from the court of Marie-Antoinette, who was at first a friend and later a foe. The illegitimate son of George de Bologne Saint-Georges, based in Guadeloupe, and an enslaved Senegalese person only known as Nanon, Chevalier was often described as that musical genius, and the film unveils his talent and bravado, with an electric opening scene, as he commandeered the stage and wooed his audience with his musical flair. His talent and works may have been hidden for decades during the Napoleonic era, to be unearthed and celebrated with this rousing rendition of his life as part of Black history, showcasing a riveting performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr, in the role of his life, as the charismatic Chevalier. This dynamic re-imagining of his life provides a musical pizazz likely to appeal to Hamilton fans and others. Although, criticism may be levelled towards the film for succumbing to Bridgerton-type tropes, with more style than substance and emphasis on bourgeois lifestyles, as opposed to being a historical account of the man himself.

Still, Chevalier will be that film to convert many to the delights of classical music pieces with its modern stance reminiscent of rock music videos. There are violin musical challenges with Chevalier pitted against Mozart, similar to rap battles and dance-offs today. There is a love interest, which is not entirely convincingly onscreen, and political struggles within an underlying message of the importance of being excellent. It is a message conveyed to Chevalier by his father, who is keen to imbue that sense of inner strength in his child. The film depicts the inward struggle Chevalier encounters as he struggles to find acceptance and his identity whilst attempting to straddle several worlds. Unfortunately, the film glosses over the full impact of the discrimination on Chevalier and the role of colonialism in France, which merely hints at Chevalier’s background.

Indeed, Chevalier was many things to many people, having come from humble beginnings, although he bears his father’s name, which is another aspect not addressed to the full extent in the film. His background is heart-breaking, but there is never that moment for emotions to come to the fore, rendering it challenging to empathise with Chevalier completely. Yet, Chevalier follows his father’s advice to be ‘excellent’, and his musical talent enables him to transcend societal barriers to a degree.

The music in Chevalier is a key selling point, with an astounding score by the renowned composer Kris Bowers, as it dramatises the elements of his life as he strives for excellence in the belief that his knighthood status will serve as a protection against prejudice. However, melodramatic moments still remind Chevalier of his place and that there is ultimately no escape for him from being ‘othered’. There is that underlying sense of frustration that Chevalier is effectively viewed as a form of entertainment to please the chattering classes, and whilst equality seems within his grasp, the ranks of the upper echelons of society are genuinely never welcoming to newcomers and revel in their bigotry.

Indeed, Chevalier relies on familiar tropes with one-to-one battles, given that Chevalier has never lost a bout as an esteemed fencer. There are obvious parallels between his level of fighting spirit on the field and stage as his ascent and rejections are depicted. The magnetic elements are in knowing that the film is based on an accurate tale that prevents the movie from being consigned to the sidelines as an insubstantial romanticised account, given the stunning costume designs. Harrison Jr carries the film as far as possible, but the outstanding score also assists. The captivating editing is reminiscent of the film Cyrano with musical flourishes such as the dramatic flouncing of sheet music as Chevalier conducts and composes.

Chevalier shines the spotlight on an intriguing period of history, with France being both the stage for innovation and embracing a reluctance to change. The film will enable audiences to discover the musical talents of Chevalier, whose papers were destroyed and therefore will prove significant in that sense despite its flaws, and its enjoyable musical score will thoroughly impress.

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