Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Marton Csokas and Minnie Driver
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Runtime: 108 mins. Reviewed in Aug 2023
Reviewer: Peter W Sheehan
This American biographical drama tells the story of a young, brilliantly gifted French-Caribbean violinist, who performed to acclaim in the French court of Queen Marie Antoinette.
The film is based on the life of the French-Caribbean musician, Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Joseph was the illegitimate son of a Senegalese-African woman who served as a slave to his father, a French Caucasian plantation owner from Guadeloupe. The story behind the movie for the most part is a true one. The movie should not be confused with a 2015 Greek-German film of the same name.
Bologne’s father enrolled him in a school in Paris, where he quickly excelled in violin playing, music composition and fencing. Joseph (Harrison Jr) was later presented at court to Marie-Antoinette (Boynton), who recognised his special skills, and knighted him, Chevalier de Saint Georges.
Chevalier’s musical abilities, fencing prowess and handsome looks won him popularity, money and public acclaim. He yearned to become maestro of the Paris Opera, but not to be. Although his popularity was widely evident, he was also the lover of attractive married women, such as Marie-Josephine (Weaving), whose husband, the Marquis de Montalembert (Csokas), was jealously furious and vindictive. Chevalier’s relationship with Marie Antoinette aroused rivalry in court, and he was despised by an ageing Opera Diva (Driver), after he rejected her romantically. Chevalier’s musical accomplishments and success at seduction were used against him, and he eventually lost his knighthood.
The film sets Chevalier’s ill-fated affairs against a background of segregation in France where black persons were primarily viewed as slaves. When political unrest eventually erupted in France, with resounding calls by the public for liberty and equality, Chevalier turned his talents to politics. He gave voice and presence to his political leanings at the time of the French Revolution, and at protest gatherings, vividly displayed, he offered both musical and personal support.
Brimming with period detail, and lush costume and production design, the film communicates vividly the troubled life of a talented musical artist. Harrison Jr shines in the title role of Chevalier. The film starts brilliantly with a musical duel between Bologne and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, where Bologne challenges Mozart to a violin contest and wins – prompting Mozart to acknowledge Bologne as a serious musical rival. Bologne subsequently came to be known as “The Black Mozart”.
The film fictionalises and modernises some of the history that it reports. But as a cinema production, it offers a highly entertaining and moving look at a brilliant artist, who was incredibly confident, and musically gifted, as he rose to fame in a society that was deeply racist and class conscious.
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