Chevalier  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Stephen Williams, US, 2022, 108  mins

Cast:  Kelvin Harrison Jr, Ronke Adekoluejo, Samara Weaving, Sian Clifford, Minnie Driver

Review by Carol Allen

It is important that stories from real black history should be told, as opposed to the alternative universe of offerings such as television’s Bridgerton.   

The sort of real life stories that director Amma Asante has mined in films such as Belle and A United Kingdom.  Chevalier too is based  on a true life story, that of musician and composer Joseph Bologne, son of a wealthy French man and a slave woman, who took the 18th Century Parisian court by storm with his charm and musical talent and was awarded the status of chevalier by Queen Marie Antoinette.

He was though almost deleted from history during the Napoleonic era.  Writer Stefani Robinson and director Stephen Williams have however painstakingly researched Bologne’s story, enhancing it with imagination and creating a cracking good period drama out of it, which features a charismatic leading performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr, most recently seen as B.B.King in the movie Elvis.

The story gets off to a lively start with a musical duel between Bologna and a very cocky Mozart (Joseph Prowen), who is musically taken down a peg or two by the newcomer to court.  Bologne however is soon involved in the more conventional duel of the period against the court’s ace swordsman, in the presence of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and King Louis XVI (Sam Barlien)   The queen  so impressed by his skills that she awards him the title of Chevalier  de Saint-Georges, which gives him status in the court. But not total protection from some brutally racist behaviour and language, which is somehow even more shocking when voiced by people in pretty period costumes.

We learn that Bologne was torn away from his mother as a boy, when his father realised his musical talent and brought him to France to be educated.  When his father dies, his legacy is to free the boy’s mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) and bring her to France. 

Despite the Queen’s support and her desire to give Bologne the prestigious job of director of the Paris Opera, the prejudice of the court forces him to fight for the job by writing and producing a new opera in competition with the other candidate.   He has alienated Paris’s leading opera diva La Guimard (Minnie Driver) by rejecting her amorous advances but he manages to capture the support of opera producer Madame De Genlis (Sian Clifford) and talented young singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) – a relationship which becomes a passionate love affair.  Not a good idea, as Marie-Josephine  has a jealous and possessive husband – a chilling performance from Marton Csokas.   Not even the Queen can save him now.  There is though a revolution on the way.  How is that going to affect Bologne’s fate?

The writer and director team have managed to create an absorbing and emotionally gripping story here with modern sensibilities smoothly inserted into a very handsome and good looking period piece.  And Harrison, who is not only good looking but has a strong screen presence, holds it all together beautifully in the title role.