Life & Culture

Chevalier review: Uneven biopic of Caribbean-French composer

Watchmen director Stephen Williams's film about Joseph Bologne fails to hit the right notes


Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Cert: 12A | ★★★✩✩

Set in the run-up to the French Revolution, this uneven biopic from Stephen Williams — a prolific TV director best known for the excellent mini-series Watchmen -— tells the little-known story of French-Caribbean musician and composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges.

The illegitimate son of an enslaved Senegalese teenager in Guadeloupe and her French plantation owner Joseph (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr), he was separated from his mother and sent to an exclusive Parisian school.

There, he excelled in violin, composition and fencing and when he came of age, was presented at court. He so impressed Louis XVI, he knighted him Chevalier and “gendarme de la garde” — although the film insists on presenting French Queen Marie-Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) as Joseph’s real mentor.

Favoured at court and fêted by France’s aristocracy for his musical prowess, Joseph’s race nonetheless wins him enemies, who join forces to stop him from becoming a true musical maestro.

His fall from grace begins thereafter and as political unrest erupts into the storming of the Bastille, Joseph is forced to face hard truths about inequality in a France that seeks to keep him from his married lover and muse Marie-Joséphine, played by the excellent Samara Weaving.

Harrison, who has yet to set a foot wrong since his starring role in Trey Edward Shults’ Waves in 2019, is equally brilliant.

However, Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson appear to be more preoccupied with riding on the success of Regency romances a la Bridgerton than they are in conveying this story with proper authenticity.

And their insistence on converting this important story about the earliest European musician and composer of African descent to receive widespread acclaim into contemporary American talking points, often feels reductive and borderline cringe.

The screenplay’s continued focus on romance also derails things. There is undoubtedly an excellent film to be made about Joseph Bologne, but this isn’t it.

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