The not-at-all-surprising popularity of Bridgerton has seen a veritable spike in period-piece filmmaking. As with anything else, quality is often lost in the endless cycle of quantity. 2023’s Chevalier arrives with the greatest intentions in depicting the true story of one of the first known black classical composers and virtuoso violinists. Certainly, the costuming and acting is quite good, but the script needed a definite brush-up. Chevalier ends up a stereotypical biopic—truly a shame when it could have been so much more.
The film opens with an energetic performance where “dark stranger” Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) approaches the stage in the midst of a thrilling Mozart performance. The two proceed to have an onstage duel of their violin prowess, the results of which place Joseph at a clear advantage. “Who the fuck is that,” an observer mutters, before the title flashes onto the screen. This near-perfect opening sequence sets an impossible standard that the rest of the movie is never able to recover from.
Pacing slows considerably as Chevalier hits the breaks, dialing back the action to trace young Joseph’s initial journey. The illegitimate son of a wealthy plantation owner and a black slave, Joseph is brought to his schooling with the promise of his “exceptional gifts” carrying his acceptance. His violin skills wow the headmaster, but the elite students are decidedly less accepting. As he learns the art of fencing and hones his violin skills, Joseph is still viewed as other. “The negro” is seen as France’s enemy. To make matters worse, Joseph does not feel at home with the people of his “class” either—they gossip and giggle that he “looks like a white boy.”
At this time, it was illegal for black men to marry white women, and vise versa. What, then, are Joseph’s romantic prospects? He falls in good favor with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), proposing that he can return the Paris Opera to its former glory. Amazing opera singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) becomes his muse and greatest love. Her father will stop at nothing to keep them apart, as he is ferociously opposed to racial commingling of any kind.
Unfortunately, Chevalier is the type of film that builds to a crescendo that never arrives. The musicality fails to cause the necessary viewer-goosebumps it attempts, and there feels overall like something is simply missing. The electricity and energy is perhaps left on the cutting room floor. Zeroing in on an essential part of an iconic figure’s life should be an easy homerun. Joseph Bologne and Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s performance deserve better than this middling 18th century retread.
Compose the magic of Chevalier when the film debuts exclusively in theaters on Friday, April 21st.