chevalier review

Chevalier review | Kelvin Harrison Jr. carries this formulaic biopic

Chevalier tells the story of Joseph Bologne, one of the first prominent Black composers. Read our full review. 

Chevalier begins with what must rank as one of the most dazzling, intensely entertaining opening sequences of the year. Set in a grand concert hall, Mozart is playing the violin to the sold-out crowd, impressing them with his virtuosic talent. Until another man gets up on stage with a violin, challenging Mozart to a fierce battle. 

This is Joseph Bologne, played here by a charismatic Kelvin Harrison Jr. What follows is an exciting, tense showoff between two excellent violinists. It sets the mood for the rest of the film; these were the rockstars of their time, their violins a 1700s’ stand-in for microphones in a rap battle.

Bologne was the child of an enslaved mother and a nobleman father. His father enrolled him in a boarding school, where Bologne’s talents were soon noticed and as he grew older, he successfully assimilated into high society and even became friendly with Queen Marie Antoinette (played in the film by Lucy Boynton). 

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Most of Stephen Williams’ film focuses on Bologne’s attempts to create a brand new musical piece that would win him the position of maestro at the Paris Opera. Bologne also begins a secret affair with the married Marie Josephine (Samara Weaving). 

Bologne’s story is an uninspiring one and it’s surprising it hasn’t been told before. It’s a true rags to riches tale, filled with the kind of stuff that Hollywood loves. Bologne’s story is one of resistance and passion; Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson frame music as an act of defiance, and it makes for a thrilling watch. 

That being said, Chevalier never feels as radical as its titular character. Although Williams and Robinson try to modernise the world and the man to fit more modern film tastes, Chevalier never rises to the challenge. Its world remains dreary and unexciting, only coming alive when Bologne is performing or composing. 

Perhaps precisely because Bologne’s story hasn’t been told before, Chevalier has to cover so much ground, lessening its impact. The film has to introduce audiences to the character, who he was in the context of the time but it allows for very little creativity. Surprisingly, the end credits reveal Bologne moved to England, returned to serve as a colonel before being imprisoned. It almost feels like the film ends too early, leaving much of Bologne’s story still untold. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is mesmerising in the starring role. He effortlessly carries the film and portrays Bologne’s insecurity which he tries to mask with arrogance. It’s a shame that none of the other cast members can match his charisma. Samara Weaving comes closest with an understated turn. Marie Josephine is a fascinating, bird-in-a-cage-like character, but Robinson’s script barely finds time to explore the women’s issues of the time. 

As a biopic, Chevalier does its job, but despite such an interesting, inspiring main character, the film comes across as deeply lacking. Harrison Jr.’s performance keeps the film from descending into complete mediocrity, but there is a nagging sense that this story deserved better. 

Chevalier is in cinemas 9 June. 

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