Even during revolutions, some who break the most barriers find themselves deemed too radical. During the French Revolution in the late 18th Century, new democratic ideas spread throughout the country. While many new ideas led to enlightenment within the country, the door for upward mobility cracked open. However, racism still held firm, leaving the works of some of France’s brightest minds uncelebrated. One such individual, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was nearly lost to history. Director Stephen Williams uses Chevalier to tell the story of the groundbreaking prodigy who rose to the highest levels of the musical world.
While other composers draw worldwide praise, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) struggles to earn acclaim for superior work. The bastard son of a French man in the Caribbean, Bologne shows prodigious talents as a child. He becomes a favorite in the court of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) despite his skin color. Eventually, he becomes the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Even then, his dream of running the Parisian Opera seems out of reach because of racism in the aristocracy. As he questions his role in the culture, an affair with Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving) complicates matters further.
The cast steps into the period piece but quickly adds incredible energy to the aristocracy. Harrison deserves most of this praise, adding an electric ambition and anger throughout his performance. Showing this side of his character could lead some to read him as arrogant, but historically the best artists in any field hold irrational confidence. Harrison ensures you never question why he believes he deserves the world. Harrison’s interpretation of Bologne as a musical performer borders on virtuosic itself. Chevalier is further proof of Harrison’s immense talent.
Weaving and Boyton are no slouches, either. Both actresses bring an air of modernity to the roles, which helps them stand out from the other characters. While they would already occupy an essential place in the context of the plot, their choices as performers solidify why these specific women were demonized in history. Weaving plays into the far more pathos-driven role, while Boyton adds a steely resolve to her political maneuvering. Both live up to the roles presented.
However, Chevalier loses some of its power over its lengthy runtime. While it comes out of the gate in a full sprint, it slowly shifts into a more meandering pace. If the momentum of the first thirty minutes remained throughout Chevalier, it might count itself among the best of the year. Instead, we sit through many scenes that go on for far too long. This would not be a problem if we were not telegraphed results in earlier scenes; in these cases, the dramatic irony does not play. Instead, the story feels more predictable.
While embracing his culture helped the real Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the depiction of it here does not work. The idea of framing Bologne as a man who struggles with his own racial identity could have been powerful. However, a scene of him walking into a racially segregated part of town to have his mother teach him about his heritage feels too hokey. The images after this scene are powerful, but the scene in question does not work dramatically.
Finally, the craftsmanship of Chevalier is top-notch. Williams pushes his crew to live within the period to create incredibly authentic costumes and makeup. The use of wigs and natural hair creates a beautiful dichotomy within Chevalier. The images become painterly and will engrain themselves in every year-end montage. Williams proves himself an immensely talented director of craftspeople.
Bringing a story like Chevalier to life is never an easy task. After all, much of the art and work of the talented composer was lost to time. Still, with Williams ensuring we understand the world of Bologne, especially within the context of the 18th Century aristocracy, we gain a stronger understanding of the man. Harrison will come away the big winner of Chevalier as he continues his ascent upward in the acting world.