If you, like many, have not come across Joseph Bologne before, then Chevalier is an entertaining introduction to this 18th-century violin virtuoso, the illegitimate son of an enslaved woman and a plantation owner who rubs shoulders with Queen Marie-Antoinette of France as the French Revolution is brewing in the streets of Paris.
Even people familiar with 18th-century French music may be forgiven for not knowing too much about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and his life and compositions. Director Stephen Williams (known for TV series Lost and Watchmen) and writer Stephani Robinson (producer of Atlanta, Fargo and What We Do in the Shadows) focus on a couple of years of The Chevalier’s life just before the French Revolution, and give him the platform denied to him at the time.
Our introduction to Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is by way of a virtuoso ‘duelling violins’ scene with none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is not impressed with being upstaged by this “dark-skinned stranger” as he calls him. We quickly learn that Joseph, the illegitimate son of an enslaved woman and a white plantation owner, was brought to France by his father as a child; already a violin virtuoso at a very young age, Joseph also excels at fencing and impresses Queen Marie-Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) to the extent that she ennobles him on the spot and he becomes one of her favourite courtiers. Joseph’s story is, as one might expect, one of ups and downs; he has huge successes but faces inevitable prejudice, which even his talent cannot overcome.
In many ways, Chevalier is a standard biopic and suffers from its subject being something of an arrogant personality – despite or possibly because of his genius. The result is that most of the people around him, particularly the female characters, are entirely secondary to this genius, and some potentially interesting storylines which include Bologne are therefore relegated if they do not serve his arc.
However, the film also has things to recommend, not least of which is the captivating and dynamic central performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. In addition, the opening ‘violin-off’ scene is energetic and introduces the character perfectly, and there is a particularly well-executed series of images portraying the path of entwined emotional and creative relationships which is cleverly filmed and beautifully edited.
Chevalier is worth seeing to learn about this fascinating and I suspect relatively unknown character, and the end captions mention further events in his life which would also translate to screen quite well if Williams was interested.