Classic collision of talent and prejudice
Film is a visual delight of castles in Czech countryside
Chevalier (PG, 108 mins). In cinemas now. Directed by Stephen Williams.
Mozart had a challenger apart from poor jealous Salieri. Who knew? The terrific opening scene of Chevalier, a biopic loosely based on fact, shows Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr) facing off against Mozart as the violinist du jour at the glittering court where Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) holds sway.
If you’re among the majority who’ve never heard of Joseph Bologne, don’t worry; now is your chance to find out about him.
Stephen Williams’ version of his story is fascinating and highly entertaining. There’s just enough reference to the prelude to the French Revolution to provide historical context, but the film is more about prejudice than about the Revolution. Its message is still relevant.
A black American at the Parisian court, Joseph is full of unshakeable and justifiable self-belief as a violinist, composer, expert swordsman and lover. He’s the classic outsider, the son of a Guadalupe plantation owner (Jim High) and one of his slaves, transplanted as a talented boy to a music academy in Paris by his father.
Racist slurs are hurled at him, but his talent and determination to be excellent, as his father told him to be, make him untouchable, until they don’t.
Marie Antoinette champions Joseph, bestowing the title ‘Chevalier’ upon him and making him a member of French nobility, but this proves to be a mixed blessing.
Apart from having a small group of aristocratic friends and dressing and behaving like them, he doesn’t belong. It’s clear that as a black man in Paris, he’ll only survive if his patron does, and crowds chanting “liberte” in the streets herald disaster for the royal family.
The story follows Joseph through a love affair with opera star Marie-josephine (Samara Weaving), the sharp-witted wife of controlling, trigger-happy Marquis Montalembert (Marton Csokas).
She longs for independence, joins the revolutionaries while hubby is out of town, asks for trouble and gets it. In subtle scripting by Stefani Robinson, her affair with Joseph follows the line of Ernestine, the tragic opera Joseph composes for his audition for the role of leader of the Paris Opera.
Into the mix comes Joseph’s recently freed mother (Ronke Adekoluejo), who brings him face-toface with the reality of his life as a faux-white aristocrat. Her authenticity is a breath of fresh air.
Symbolically, he casts off his wig and lets his mother braid his hair into cornrows.
Movingly, he composes a piece for violin based on the gentle song his mother used to sing to him when he was a child.
With Bridgerton-defying wigs and Oliver Garcia’s gorgeously flamboyant costumes, the film is a visual delight.
Prague and wonderfully preserved castles in the Czech countryside make excellent proxies for 18th-century Paris.
Characters are believable, even in their over-the-top get-ups. Minnie Driver’s performance as spurned lover La Guimard is a standout.
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