It’s one of the most electric opening sequences of the year. The prodigiously talented Mozart is happily dazzling an audience with his skills as a violinist when he’s interrupted by an anonymous, black stranger. The violin duel that follows leaps off the screen with physical and musical energy, ending with a deeply disgruntled Mozart knowing he’s met his match. But who is his unknown adversary?
As he – and we – soon discover, he’s Joseph Bologne, soon to be Chevalier de Saint-Georges in the court of Louis XVI. And in Stephen Williams’ (TV’s Watchmen, Westworld, Ray Donovan) debut feature film, Chevalier, we’re introduced to a figure who was almost totally erased from history – and somebody with a remarkable story. Born in Guadelope to a wealthy French landowner and a young slave girl, Bologne was brought to Paris to be educated. His talents as a musician, composer and swordsman soon attracted the attention of the royal court and, with his star very much in the ascendancy, it seemed he could do no wrong. But his attempts to become the head of the Paris Opera were stopped in their tracks by the Code Noir which prohibited people of African origin holding high office. And it was the start of his fall from grace.
As we discover in the end credits, this is just his early years. His later life included leading the first all-black regiment in the French Revolution but his story was almost completely erased from history so that, even now, it’s comparatively unknown. Yet, from what we see, the second half of his life is just as powerful a story – if not more so – which makes a film of his life at court a perplexing choice. That said, it’s a solid biopic with a strong commentary on prejudice, privilege and inequality, as well as being one with appealing visuals.
Despite its qualities – and there are plenty, including stunning costumes and beautifully choreographed ballroom scenes – there’s a lingering sense of the film continually playing catch-up after that spectacular opening. And it never quite makes it, falling just short in its attempts to re-capture that energy. Kelvin Harrison Jnr in the title role is its biggest asset and brings it close, giving one of his best performances to date, as the flamboyant court favourite with the equivalent of a rock star lifestyle. It strengthens the contemporary feel of the narrative and is helped by the character’s complexity: he’s no saint, that’s for sure.
With blockbusters – some great, some not so – dominating cinemas at the moment, Chevalier is a welcome opportunity to watch something original, something with no franchise connections. But we only get half the story and that leaves behind just a twinge of disappointment.
Biopic | Cinemas, 9 June 2023 | Searchlight Pictures | Cert: 12A | Dir: Stephen Williams | Kelvin Harrison Jnr, Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Minnie Driver.