When I first saw Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the movie Luce, I knew then that he would become a star. He’s a magnetic and charismatic actor, and Chevalier truly allows him to shine and play to his strengths. He plays composer Joseph Bologne, the illegitimate son of a plantation owner and his slave. The film is based on the remarkable true story of the real Joseph Bologne, though of course retold with a certain imaginative creative license.
The very first scene in the movie is Joseph challenging Mozart (Joseph Prowen) to a violin battle, and it shows us everything we need to know about the character. He’s talented, immensely skilled, and confident to the point of arrogance. He quickly earns the favour of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), and is bestowed by her the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. But that is not enough. Joseph is hungry for more, and wants to be acknowledged as the best. He challenges Christoph Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) for the title of artistic director of the Royal Academy of Music at the Opéra, and spurred on by Antoinette, the pair go head to head to see who is the better man for the job, by composing their own opera to be performed for the committee.
Joseph believes he knows the perfect woman to be the lead in his opera, the beautiful Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), whose enchanting voice turned his head at a party. As they rehearse and work on the opera together, their feelings for each other start to blossom. In a society without rules built on class, gender and race, Joseph and Marie-Josephine would be perfect for each other. But France in the 18th century is unforgiving – a woman has no agency, and a mixed race man like Joseph does not belong, however long his list of accomplishments.
Harrison Jr. and Weaving have marvelous chemistry together, but there’s also a wonderful tenderness in their portrayal of these star-crossed lovers. When Joseph holds her and kisses her, he does so with such feeling and awe, because he’s blatantly aware that these moments with her are precious and transient.
However, the most powerful moments in the movie are the scenes between Joseph and his mother. He feels distant from her because of their years apart, yet she is the only one who can understand and empathize with his pain. As talented as he is, society still finds ways to constantly remind him of his inferior status, and despite his friendship with Marie Antoinette, she too seeks to uphold the status quo.
While Joseph goes through his personal struggles, there’s a revolution brewing in the background, of those fighting for freedom and liberty from the ruling class. Initially, Joseph never wanted to tangle in the world of politics, viewing it as something separate from him and his music. But he comes to realise that if he merely lived to toe the line, then he would never be free. The world isn’t a kind place for a man like him, but maybe he could fight to make it better for someone else.
The costumes and sets are gorgeous, and of course I must wax lyrical about the movie’s score. Chevalier’s music, composed by Kris Bowers – known for his work on Bridgerton and King Richard – is a reflection of Joseph’s journey in the film. Every emotion felt, every wound endured, we hear it through the music.
While the screenplay and narrative is conventional, the rest of the film is remarkable enough to overcome the screenplay’s limitations. A fascinating film about a fascinating man.
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What a tour de force performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. He is spectacular, and so is Chevalier.
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