A historical biopic with a point of difference, Chevalier is great fun
“Who the fuck is that?”
It seems insane that a story such as that of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges could be so unheralded but then, that’s kinda the point of 2002 film Chevalier. Born in Guadeloupe to a white plantation owner and one of his Senegalese slaves, Joseph left the French colony as a young’un to attend boarding school in Paris, where his talents in fencing and music brought him to the attention of Marie Antoinette who knighted him and seemingly cemented his place in society.
But the road to becoming the first classical composer of African descent to attain widespread acclaim in European music (d’après Wikipédia) is predictably not an easy one, even with royal favour. The pernicious effects of racism are certainly on display here but leavened with the visceral pleasures of all the fripperies of 18th century Paris in full flow – the shadow of revolution creeping further up the wall as numerous champagne-fuelled affairs play out.
Directed by Stephen Williams from a screenplay by Stefani Robinson, Chevalier focuses on this soapier side of things to rather good effect. Kelvin Harrison Jr is superb as the bold and brash Joseph, his self-confidence walking into the room before he does and seducing so many around him, particularly Samara Weaving’s Marie-Josephine and Minnie Driver’s entertainingly broad diva Marie-Madeleine Guimard.
As a character study, one might be left wanting more but this doesn’t feel like a negative. Rather it feels like an opportunity to recognise a neglected historical figure and do our own reading to fill in those gaps. Strong supporting turns from Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Marton Csokas and Lucy Boynton impress, Kris Bowers’ score intelligently explores how Joseph’s heritage may have influenced his work and Karen Murphy’s production design is handsome indeed – recommended.