TIFF 2022: Movie Review – “Chevalier” (Searchlight)

Filled with the rich sounds of classical music from Mozart to the title character Chevalier, audiences will be captivated by this stirring story of the late great Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

It’s 18th century France, and the son of a rich landowner and slave, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is taken from his home and placed in an exclusive school in France. The only black student, Joseph takes the advice of his father to heart. He must excel at everything, so that no one can ever tear him down.

Joseph is far and away the most talented and gifted student in the academy. From fencing to music, there is nothing that Joseph can’t do. The queen, Marie-Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) awards Joseph the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Friends with the queen, it seems like the world is at his fingertips.

When the chance to lead the Paris Opera House turns into a competition, Joseph throws himself into his work, writing the better opera, and falling in love with his star Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving). Though talented beyond doubt, racism, and the coming French revolution will impact Joseph in more ways than one.

Chevalier is one of those rare moments in film, where the story of a forgotten legend is brought to the world’s attention thanks to the filmmakers and stars. When Napoleon ruled France, he reinstituted slavery, and tried to erase Joseph Bologne from existence. As hard as the emperor tried, some of Joseph’s work survived, and now we have this beautiful story alive and on the screen.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is masterful in his work as Joseph. The movie does not dwell much on the early youth of Joseph, so Harrison spends most of the film front and center in practically every scene. From each moment of prejudice to the mighty successes that Joseph has, Harrison has brought the physical and the subtle moments to such life that audiences will feel the joy and the ache of trauma as Joseph tries to exist in a world where most do not want him to be.

Lucy Boyton plays Marie-Antoinette with a fresh look that may show a more complex and deeper character that what has been portrayed in cinema before. This Marie Antoinette is a force to recon with. She is the giver of prominence and fame, and she can also be the one who takes it away. Boyton endows her character with a duplicitous nature that up until the moment of betrayal, it would be easy to support the queen.

Samara Weaving is a joy as Marie-Josephine. She instills her female lead with a sense of purpose and mirrors the limitations and discrimination that Joseph experiences through her own as a woman. Marie has been indentured to the will of her father, and now her husband. She too has no choice about the future she wants, just that she must do what the man in her life wants. Weaving brings heart and emotion to her character which is not to be missed.  

Minnie Driver as La Guimard has only a few scenes, but a talent like Driver uses these moments to play up the strength of her character. La Guimard is not a good person, and Driver only needs a few scenes to establish the self-centered personality that will stop at nothing to get what she wants, even if it is at the expense of Joseph. Minnie Driver is delightfully evil.  

Historical costumed movies about composers from three hundred years ago have a tough hill to climb to gain recognition and credibility. The costuming could overwhelm the acting, or the music could be used poorly so that the viewers miss out on the connection between the story and what we see and hear on the screen. Chevalier amplifies the costuming and music to supporting roles that play up the emotions and the consequences of what is happening.

Director Stephen Williams and writer Stephani Robinson have used cinema to bring back the luster and magic of a music great that was almost lost to history. Audiences will leave the theatres with the sound of powerful music reverberating in their hearts, and wonder about what could have been, had Joseph Bologne not been sidelined because of the color of his skin.

While the cast in entirety is perfection, we will no doubt see Kelvin Harrison Jr., director Stephen Williams and writer Stephani Robinson on the awards circuit this year. They truly deserve recognition for this breathtaking film.