Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the French Creole virtuoso violinist, conductor, and classical composer in Paris. Please don’t feel bad; I’d never heard of him either. But director Stephan Williams and writer Stephani Robinson are here to rectify that with their latest historical drama that’s much more than just a biography of a little-known figure who left a major imprint on history (that’s couched in the over-told story of Marie Antoinette’s revolution) — while being Black in France during the lead up to the French Revolution. With that in mind, don’t think it is just another stuffy historical drama or an over-the-top extravagant opus to Marie Antoinette and her reign.
In Robinson’s electrifying story, the Chevalier (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the illegitimate son of a French nobleman who is afforded all of the perks of his class, but the added pressures of his skin tone and racial background. He is an expert swordsman but an even better violinist and composer who works his way into the great graces of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). As the seeds of dissent and revolution begin to sprout, Chevalier falls in love with the unavailable Lady Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), much to the chagrin of her husband Montalembert (Marton Csokas). While creating a musical masterpiece to win an appointment to the Paris Opera House, Chevalier’s eyes are opened to the social ills of the masses and his people with the help of his best friend Philippe (Alex Fitzalan), who lights a revolutionary spark that propels Chevalier to change the course of not only his history but of the world (Bologne went on to lead one of the first all-black regimens during the French Revolution).
Chevalier opens with a rousing between conductors — one of which just happens to be a little-known guy by the name of Mozart, and the other is a relatively unknown at the time Joseph Bologne who looks like he doesn’t quite belong in this world. But his audacity, creativity, and passion propel the virtuoso to new heights — much to the dismay of the more well-known Mozart. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie — it crescendos when it needs to, it’s andante at times and allegro at others — but this opening would be nothing without the stellar acting performance that Harrison Jr. gives in this role. He embodies Bologne in such a way that melds the swagger and skill of the virtuoso. Then you add on top of that the cadence of Williams’s directing and Robinson’s script and what you’re left with is a dynamic film that puts it on the same level as Milos Forman’s Amadeus.
The film is sumptuously rendered from the acting of all involved to the beautifully rousing score (by the incomparable Kris Bowers, who is killing the game right now) all the way through to the costume (Oliver Garcia) and production (Karen Murphy) design. But Chevalier is not just beauty and opulence; it’s also introspective and speaks to the cultural times — convenient allyship and “who is France” (which could be a stand-in for America), what do we stand for, and who represents us? It is about defying stereotypes, breaking boundaries, and being true to yourself, all against the backdrop of the cries for “égalité,” which still reverberates today.
As a former classically trained violinist, I was fascinated by the story of Chevalier — fascinated by this formerly relatively unknown figure from history who did extraordinary things during an extraordinary time. Barring from that, this film isn’t just for classical music lovers –the story, the music and the drama resonates way beyond the cosmetic and history. It’s history come to life in such a way that is entertaining with a pace and intensity that crescendos and draws the viewer in until the very last note.