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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Actor and musician Kelvin Harrison Jr, who recently played blues legend BB King in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, commands the screen as Joseph Bologne, the son of an enslaved Senegalese mother and a French plantation owner in Guadeloupe. Having been sent by his father to boarding school in Paris, where he showed a prodigious talent for fencing and music, Joseph arrives at the Sofia Coppola-esque court of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who anoints him Chevalier de Saint-Georges – an extraordinarily elevated position, as jealous noblemen are quick to remind him, for someone of his background.
For a while, Joseph’s charms and talents make him an object of courtly desire – feted for his skills as a lover and a fighter as well as a composer and virtuoso violinist. An affair with Samara Weaving’s silver-throated Marie-Josephine enrages her bullying husband, the Marquis de Montalembert, played with a quietly terrifying scowl by Marton Csokas. But when prejudice and personal rivalries come between Bologne and an appointment at the Paris Opera, he finds new kinship among the rhubarbing rabble (“Liberté! Égalité!”) who are soon to be gathering at the gates of the Bastille, and to whom he lends musical support.
Described in its opening titles as a “prelude to revolution”, Chevalier is entertainingly soapy fare with an unabashedly brash and anachronistic approach to its 18th-century tale. It’s arguable that there’s still a whole other movie to be made about Bologne, focusing on his role as a colonel in France’s first all-black military regiment (mentioned briefly in the closing credits) and his subsequent imprisonment during “la Terreur” (Napoleon later tried to write Bologne’s musical legacy out of history). Yet perhaps that is this frothy film’s strength: cherrypicking multiplex-friendly elements from a complex and still largely unknown life in a manner that leaves the audience wanting to know much more.