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Chevalier review: A lost historical figure gets his due in a rousing biopic

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Samara Weaving excel in this portrait of an 18th-century Black composer navigating racism, romance, and a rivalry with Mozart

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Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Cinema has long been a tool used to re-make history, as a stellar film can reify a historical hero or recover one in the process. Chevalier, directed by Stephen Williams, carries such an impulse as its North Star. Intentionally erased from history books, the figure of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is here given a biopic designed to enshrine him in our shared cultural imagination—and Williams’ film asks us to confront how the historical record so often depends on such erasure.

Set in 18th century France, a country on the brink of a head-spinning revolution, Chevalier sets the stage for historical revisionism from the get-go. Rather than introduce us to Joseph as a young boy forced to use his every bit of genius to overcome the deeply held racism that surrounds him at school, Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson first places the eventual Chevalier on par with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At a concert led by that famed composer, the unknown Joseph dazzles the crowd with a musical duel that immediately has audiences (and Mozart) wondering who this Black virtuoso is and why we have never heard of him before.


Such an opening, blunt as it may establish the film’s raison d’être, anchors Chevalier into a counterfactual history wherein Robinson, Williams, and Harrison Jr. reconstruct a man worth remembering in the same breath as Mozart. It’s only then—following the opening credits—that we learn how a young Black boy conceived in a plantation (a bastard, per his own father’s admission) received his full education in Paris, dazzled the court and Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton)—so much so that he earns the title of Chevalier—and how, later still, while composing a comic opera, he found himself embroiled in an illicit affair that eventually radicalized him.


With sumptuous costumes and sets that place us squarely within the decadent world of that famed and ill-fated monarch, Chevalier deals with Bologne’s impossible task of succeeding in such a space. His father tells him early on that he must be excellent—so that his excellence becomes an indefatigable defense against his darkened skin. And true enough, whether dueling with Mozart armed with a violin or fencing in front of the queen, Bologna internalizes this need to have his accomplishments serve as shields and weapons. Much of it serves him well—until it doesn’t.

Harrison Jr., who’s already gifted us searing performances in films such as Waves, Luce, and Monster, is here given a chance to further prove why he’s one of the most exciting actors of his generation. The young actor has a keen eye for the way Bologne moves through the world, always knowing he can’t risk any mistakes. Such knowledge weighs on him at every turn yet also galvanizes him to be a charming cad, one who knows how far a gritted smile will go lest he show just how strained it may be. But Harrison Jr. knows also when to soften such posturing; in scenes with Bologne’s mother (Ronke Adekoluejo), for instance, he’s called to emotionally regulate an entire lifetime’s worth of repression while coming face to face with a maternal figure he had no access to for much of his formative years. In such interactions, painful as they are, you witness the toll his own excellence has brought upon him.

CHEVALIER | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures

Despite it helping Bologne live nimbly amid a gentry that would (and eventually does) disown him, the need to be an unimpeachable man who’d be first and foremost French is a tiring one. That becomes harder once he falls in love with the would-be lead in his opera, Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (Samara Weaving). The tryst, which begins almost instantly once she shows Bologne some attention, eventually takes over the film (which ends up recalling the plot of that very opera, where a maiden opts for love over a marriage of convenience). Even as Weaving and Harrison Jr. have crackling chemistry (and their characters have time to mull over what it means to “seem” one thing to not destabilize their own good standing), such a subplot ends up making Bologne’s story, as presented, a generic one concerned with illicit affairs and jealous husbands.

And yet, such a romance tees up what is arguably a triumph of a final scene that captures what Chevalier does best: not just offering a fictionalized history worth knowing with a stellar central performance, but also a rallying cry about the power art and artists can have in times of revolt and revolution. Michael Abels (Get Out, Nope), who helped arrange and produce Bologne’s work for the film, and Kris Bowers (King Richard, Respect), who riffed on it with his string-heavy orchestral score, give Chevalier a bruising musical texture that comes to a climax in the film’s unforgettable final shot. It’s a moment that packs such a punch you almost forgive the oft-deployed levity that risks flattening the film’s more serious interests. Nevertheless, as a celebration of a musical genius, Chevalier is a wildly entertaining ride, a thrilling history lesson in the making that remains as timely as ever.

Chevalier will be released in theaters on April 21, 2023