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MOVIES: Chevalier - Review

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It’s about time we got a biopic on composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The film knows this and is aware of what a talented, extraordinary man Chevalier has at its disposal: few films can open with someone humiliating Mozart at his own concert and the film more than delivers with that; having him upstaged and rendering him the same way that of a small child would be viewed. It’s the 1700s equivalent to a rockstar experiencing the concert of a lifetime before flashing back to their earlier life – as we’re soon introduced to a baby Joseph, taken away to a racist elite French school where he’s immediately out of his depth and encouraged to be the best of the best, quickly winning favour with Marie Antoinette and upstaging her rivals.

This talented, legendary man is largely forgotten from history: a casualty of Napoleon. But Kelvin Harrison Jr. is more than capable of bringing him back to life with the aid of reclamation; this powerful film knows it has a legend on its hands and revels in that: Harrison Jr.’s performance brings a completely different energy to his roles in Waves and beyond, a real powerhouse of an actor capable of playing this larger than life figure with all the gravitas he can. Listening to Boulogne’s music whilst writing this review shows you just how good of a soundtrack Chevalier really has to offer, it’s grand, operatic and rivals the greatest composers of the era: bombastic and revolutionary in a way that almost makes me wish this film had been moreso to rival that. Where the film most comes alive is in its final act during the rebellious heyday of the French Revolution, we see the streets becoming more crowded with anarchists, the distribution of leaflets and the secret underground protests against the Queen of France. But Chevalier almost feels too caught up in maintaining its biopic cliches – and that’s kind of its biggest let down in how formulaic it is. That said: the staging and the usage of the mise-en-scene here is deployed excellently, the mother of all final acts really ensures this ends on a high and the text on screen that accompanies the biopics almost leaves you wishing that you had a sequel to this film: it's rare that what comes next feels more exciting than the events depicted here; but I'd love to see a full on French Revolution movie with this cast. Make it happen, Hollywood!

That said; given the music biopics that we’ve had recently, Chevalier still feels practically Shakespearean in its own right, running circles around say, Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s operatic – the relationship between Joseph and Marie-Josephine, played by Samara Weaving, is born out of nowhere and the tragedy that follows a doomed lovers’ affair is noble and the stuff of legends. Weaving’s performance gives a shade of vulnerability and a fierce edge – completely different from the cockiness aloof and out of touch born of the Marie Antoinette role played by Sing Street’s Lucy Boynton; great there, just as good here. You believe the “let them eat cake” energy that Boynton brings, the whimsical last Queen of France vibes and the presence that made her royalty in the first place, treading a delicate balance between appealing to the people and appealing to those who she needs to maintain power in the first place.

The plot points kind of spiral to a head with the French Revolution being the ultimate get-out-of-jail third act deus ex machina plot devices; it kind of moves along with the agency of spiralling towards a doomed tragedy. Think Amadeus for a direct inspiration that Stephen Williams drew from; almost certainly – the only other film in recent memory to deploy Mozart so brilliantly is Bill and Ted Face the Music where he goes up against Jimi Hendrix (yes, really). I do think it’s let down by not being the same length as Amadeus, I would’ve loved to have seen more of the French court politics and more of the French revolution’s origins – a tight 107 minutes means that it’s almost a bit rushed, but the chaotic nature of its pacing makes Chevalier compulsively watchable whilst battling with a crisis of identity – drawing from many themes without having the time to go into them all in depth.

Good movie, though! One of the most unsung of 2023 so far and draws on an era of history that I’ve been hyperfixiated on ever since university, so I was always bound to have a fond affection for it.

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