Photograph: Searchlight Pictures
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3 out of 5 stars

This extrovert period drama celebrates an unsung Black pioneer of classic music with shallow flair


Time Out says

If the music biopic usually bolsters the legacies of already beloved icons (Rocketman, Ray, I Wanna Dance With Somebody et al), this extroverted period drama takes its cues from a starker, more mysterious song sheet: the untold story of 18th century French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. 

Young, Black and flamboyant, Bologne (Waves Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the antithesis of every problematic cliché that classical music has come to embody. Director Stephen Williams addresses the historic erasure of Black musicians immediately with a riotous, expectation-subverting opening sequence in which Bologne steps on stage to better the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen) in a violin duel. Unfolding in front of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), a future benefactor, and the cream of Paris society, it’s a rare moment of universal embrace that goes against the grain of Joseph’s outlier status. 

Flashbacks offer an insight into the virtuoso musician’s unconventional upbringing. The illegitimate son of a French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese housemaid (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), Bologne is sent to a French boarding school. Regrettably, bearing the lineage of both the oppressor and the oppressed does little to inform the complexity of his character. Instead, screenwriter Stefani Robinson zeroes in on his musical gifts and ability to attract beautiful women; including an ill-advised, Bridgerton-esque affair with a white married opera singer (Ready Or Not’s Samara Weaving) that sees him cross her dangerous husband (Marton Csokas). It’s not until the racial politics of the time bulldozer his dream of becoming the director of the Paris opera house that bravado gives way to the harrowing realisation that even limitless talent has its limitations. 

‘You are a tourist in their world,’ says Bologne’s mother to her son – and the same can be said for the talented cast. Harrison Jr exudes a boyish charm and channels a musical gravitas that’s becoming his calling card (The High Note and as BB King in Elvis), but ultimately his performance is shackled by an uneven script that fails to develop his character.

Kelvin Harrison Jr exudes boyish charm and the same musical gravitas as in Elvis

Frustratingly, the closing sequence reveals more impressive feats, which include leading France’s first all-Black regiment during the French Revolution, narrowly escaping a death sentence and moving to England. It all adds up to the hollowing sense that a chance to tell a bolder, deeper story has been missed. There are hints of greatness in Chevalier, but it’s worthier of polite applause than a standing ovation.

Out in UK cinemas Jun 9 and in Australia Aug 3.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Stephen Williams
  • Screenwriter:Stefani Robinson
  • Cast:
    • Lucy Boynton
    • Samara Weaving
    • Kelvin Harrison Jr.
    • Marton Csokas
    • Sian Clifford
    • Minnie Driver
    • Ronke Adekoluejo
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