A renaissance man

‘Chevalier’: An unsung virtuoso gets a song

The best that’s ever been? Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) shows off his fiddlin’ chops in “Chevalier,” a fanciful biopic about a forgotten historical figure.
The best that’s ever been? Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) shows off his fiddlin’ chops in “Chevalier,” a fanciful biopic about a forgotten historical figure.

There is a delightful scene near the beginning of Barry Levinson's "The Natural," where Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford), a neophyte baseball prospect taking a train on his way to try out for the Majors, gets into an impromptu pitching contest with "The Whammer" (John Don Baker), a Babe Ruthian figure, and already a superstar.

They exit the train and head to an open field, where Hobbs burns fastball after fastball past an unbelieving Whammer, who strikes out ignominiously. It's a great way for the film to introduce this quietly confident character, undaunted by the challenge of facing the most heralded ballplayer of his day. Hobbs, famously, wants to eventually become the "best that ever was," so as far as he's concerned, it's all sort of pre-ordained for him anyway (as anyone who has seen the film can attest, Hobbs' career doesn't go exactly according to plan).

There's a similar moment early in "Chevalier," Stephen Williams' quasi-biopic of the composer and wunderkind musician Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The film opens mid-concert, with an appreciative audience staring rapturously at the spritely young man in the center of the stage, leading his orchestra on a merry swing of melody, as he hops about, playing his violin with extreme flair.

After the piece finishes, he asks the audience for "requests," and it is then that we first hear the voice of Bologne, calling out a piece, as he strides confidently to the stage, where he joins with an unbelieving Mozart (Joseph Prowen), challenging him, as it were, to a violin duel. Needless to say, as Hobbs managed to do against "Whammer," Bologne more than holds his own (prompting Mozart, in the film's funniest moment, to stalk off backstage, and ask "Who the **** is that?!").

Joseph Bologne was, in fact, what the French might have called a renaissance man: Born out of wedlock to a Senegalese slave, and her wealthy plantation owner, in Guadeloupe, he arrived at a music conservatory outside of Paris, paid for by his father, who recognized the boy's prodigious talent. There, he suffered considerable slings, arrows, and beatings, en route to becoming one of the finest violin players in France. If that weren't enough, he was also a champion fencer, spoke many languages, and was revered for his style and grace.

As the film has it, Bologne is finally granted a title by no less than Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton), who fancies him a great deal after watching him dispatch a French champion fencer with relative ease. But, the now-ordained Chevalier de Saint-Georges has greater ambitions still: what he really wants is to be made music director of the Paris Opera, one of the most prestigious titles in all of the arts. In petitioning his Queen for the position, he agrees to a contest to prove he's the best possible choice.

In putting together his own production, Bologne casts Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), a fetching young woman he hears sing at a party, as his lead. Married to a stern former French general, the young man is undeterred in pursuing an affair with her, one that leads the couple to pledge their love for each other, even as the world conspires against them. With revolution in the air, Bologne is finally forced to choose a side between the disdainful blue bloods who proliferate his milieu, and the oppressed masses who yearn to accept him as one of their own.

The story of Bologne, whose masterful works were lost after no less than Napoleon forbade anyone from playing his compositions, is both telling and, in the hands of Stephen Williams, working from a script by Stefani Robinson, more than a mite rote. Given the dramatic backdrop of revolution, and with a protagonist who neatly straddles both the high-society he was raised into, and the down-to-earth masses from which he originally sprang, you can imagine how the construction of such a film might quickly come together.

The thing is, however, it becomes clear that Chevalier is a vastly more complicated man than the film allows -- an element the film only hints at after his beloved mother (Ronke Adékoluejo) finally is freed from her bondage and returns to him: The screenplay does little to examine him beyond his obvious symbolic purpose. After spending the vast majority of the film rejecting his mother's Creole culture, it seems to take but a single night out with her, playing alongside a drum circle, for him to discover his true roots and reject the noble class that had already been thoroughly rejecting him for years.

To be fair, the production doesn't shy away from racial politics -- among many other things, Bologne has to endure an openly racist letter penned to the Queen against his advancement, co-penned by a diva (Minnie Driver), whose advances he rejected earlier -- but chooses not to dig terribly deep into them, leaving much of his tortured psyche unexamined, in order to keep the film churning forward.

As a result, the dramatic climax, which has Bologne stage a concert in support of the revolutionaries, very much against the wishes of Marie Antoinette, who threatens to destroy him for it, feels rushed. It's easy enough to get the point, certainly, but, as with many biopics of its ilk, it favors quick resolution and dramatic encapsulation to depth, a treatment that hardly does justice to Bologne. For a man who once bested no less than Mozart in musical combat, it's hard not to feel he deserves better.

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85 Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adékoluejo, Marton Csokas, Alex Fitzalan, Minnie Driver, Sian Clifford, Joseph Prowen

Director: Stephen Williams

Rating: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes


  photo  Despite being married to a French general, singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) aligns herself with the dashing Joseph Bologne and his lifelong friend Philippe (Alex Fitzalan) as the clouds of revolution gather in “Chevalier.”

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