A historical figure whose achievements are all the more remarkable due to the obstacles faced as the son of a white father and black mother, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is highlighted, but not quite as richly celebrated in Stephen Williams‘s Chevalier.
And given the extraordinary details of his life story, it’s a shame that Williams and writer Stefani Robinson (TV’s Atlanta) haven’t been able to flesh out a narrative that addresses the racial politics of the film’s 18th century era, instead only lightly dancing with such controversy and settling for formulaic episodes of scandal and jeopardy; love triangles and the French Revolution taking up most of the film’s 108 minutes.
It all starts off quite promisingly though, with the film’s opening scene truly making a splash and (falsely) setting a precedent for an energy that isn’t sustained. Saint-Georges (played with a welcome swagger by the always watchable Kelvin Harrison Jr.) crashes the stage of a performance of one Mozart. He plays well, but he’s a bit of a pompous bore, and Saint-Georges can’t help but lean into his rightful cockiness as a skilled violinist, challenging Mr. Mozart to a duel of sorts. It’s electrifying to watch the two battle it out, and Saint Georges’ obvious eclipsing talent makes for the most grand of introductions for a character we are immediately on side with.
But from there the film remains pleasant and safe, which for a story such as this shouldn’t be the case. Harrison Jr. is so inherently watchable that he continually elevates the material where he can. As does the ensemble, with Samara Weaving particularly luminous as Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, an opera singer and the eventual object of Saint-Georges’ affection, Lucy Boynton as a bubbly Marie Antoinette, and Minnie Driver as Marie-Madeleine Guimard, a more seasoned opera singer who, once her advances are rejected by Saint-Georges, vows to professionally destory him.
These women weave in and out of his life, and though the forbidden romance aspect of the story with Marie-Josephine is sweetly realised through Harrison Jr. and Weaving’s performances, the gravity of their affair – both from a class and race perspective – is only flirted with on the surface. Where the film feels as if it’s properly devoting its time to a subject of weight is through his relationship with his Senegalese mother (Ronke Adekoluejo). Once word of his father’s passing is made known and his mother is free from his rule, they reunite in a manner that’s more awkward than animated. The emotional rush of being together again wears off quickly, but she is the only person in his life that doesn’t pander to his status, grounding him as a reminder of who he truly is.
A film that should be far more detailed as a character study, Chevalier, for all its faults, still gets by on its impeccably lush sets and costumes, rousing soundtrack, and across the board performances. Its opening almost does the remainder of the film a disservice due to how entertaining and impactful it is, and perhaps in comparison it feels less-than – more so than it is – as, aside from its opening, this is nonetheless a serviceable, intriguing character drama; it’s just one that deserves, and commands, more elements from within.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Chevalier is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, running between June 7th and 18th, 2023. For more information head to the official SFF page.
Chevalier is scheduled for a national release in Australian theatres from August 3rd, 2023.