The disappointing period piece biopic Chevalier is a great example of a film that would tell one heck of a story if it wasn’t in such a hurry to get through everything. A story about the life and contributions of a once great musician lost to the sands of racist, revisionist history sounds like the perfect bedrock to build a movie upon. But just as Chevalier is starting to make an emotional impact and get dramatically interesting, the film is almost over, essentially glossing over the real meat of the piece in favour of visual posturing and lengthy dumps of exposition. It’s a film that has put almost all of its emphasis and energy into the wrong places.
The titular subject being profiled here is Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a loyal subject in the court of Queen Marie Antionette (Lucy Boynton). A man of letters, an accomplished swordsman, and most importantly, a virtuoso musical mind, Bologne – a black man who was born into wealth and privilege via his French plantation owner father, who had an affair with a recently freed slave (Ronke Adekoluejo) – sees himself as the person who can bring the famed Paris Opera away from its current artistic stagnancy and into modern respectability. Joseph sees the crown jewel of his vision in Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), a woman with a powerhouse voice that the chevalier is quite sweet on. Not only does Bologne have to deal with the rising tide of racism in 18th century France and the stodgy old ways of the Parisian opera, but also with Marie-Josephine’s intensely jealous husband, the Marquis de Montalembert (Martin Csokas).
The history of Joseph Bologne, once heralded by early American president John Adams as “the most talented man in Europe,” is a fascinating one, but director Stephen Williams and writer Stefani Robinson don’t seem very interested in the complexity and and meaning of their subject’s unique story outside of the basics. Chevalier has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to do well by someone who had most of their historical output either erased or suppressed, and television veterans Williams and Robinson aren’t exactly sure how to go about relaying Bologne’s impact and struggle. Chevalier is one of those films where it’s not hard to tell that it was made by people who have worked extensively on television and not as much on cinema. It moves like clockwork, but to the detriment of what it’s trying to accomplish.
The first half of Chevalier is packed to bursting with large amounts of expository dialogue, and very few moments of respite or genuine character. Instead of focusing on the details of Bologne’s professional and political life, Chevalier is framed as a more conventional story of doomed love. After a wonderful opening sequence where Joseph displays his virtuosic violin playing skills in an impromptu throwdown with Mozart, Chevalier falls into an unsatisfying bunch of scenes where progress is made, a lot is said, and most of it is delivered without much passion or conviction. It’s all very competent and purposeful, but also flat.
That doesn’t mean that the cast of Chevalier isn’t doing their part to keep things interesting. The still inexplicably underrated Harrison does everything he can to make Bologne a major presence, but almost all of the emotional heavy lifting rests on his capable shoulders, and the material counts on him at every point to paper over all that’s missing. Weaving and Csokas are both fine, but they’re asked to do little more than play a love interest and contemptible villain, respectively. Adekoluejo is given a character that should be important on paper, but is a non-entity for large portions of the film. Thankfully she’s quite memorable in ways the rest of the film is not.
Chevalier is the story of a man who was told from a very early age that he “must always be excellent,” and while Harrison embodies that sentiment perfectly with his performance, it takes until just past the hour mark of the film to begin illustrating the toll of such expectations. Before that point, Williams and Robinson explain a lot of greatness and period detail, but keep the struggle to a minimum outside of a strange scene where an academic debate about racism takes place during a gentlemanly sword fight. Chevalier will always be a predictable film to anyone with passing knowledge of the history, but that doesn’t make up for the by-the-numbers, reductive first half. By the time Chevalier starts to become emotional and impactful, there’s not much space left for those beats to resonate.
Part of that might be a result of Chevalier trying its best to be a mainstream appealing crowd pleaser. The sets are opulent, costumes flowery, and it’s an absolute paradise for period wig enthusiasts, but those details might be biting into a budget that would be better spent fleshing out the story, themes, and characters. Williams’ film looks the part, but it’s all window dressing for a better story about racism, sexism, and cultural inequalities that’s bubbling under the surface. All of the most interesting elements of Joseph Bologne’s life are constantly being pushed into the background in favour of a story meant to draw in as many eyes as possible. It’s a noble pursuit to bring Bologne back into the spotlight, but Chevalier is going about it in the simplest, most basically satisfying ways possible.
Chevalier opens in Canadian theatres starting Friday, April 21, 2023.
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