Stuffy, overly serious, slow, and pretentious are all words most often used to describe period pieces. Even for someone like me that thinks The Age of Innocence and Barry Lyndon are the best works by Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, respectively, those harsh adjectives are not entirely false for most of the entries within this long-lived genre. And yet, none of those words can be applied to Stephen Williams' Chevalier, which is finally being unveiled in theaters by Searchlight Pictures after storming onto the scene as the biggest surprise for me out of the Toronto International Film Festival last September (when it greatly benefitted from being sandwiched between my screenings for Causeway and The Eternal Daughter).
Anyone sitting down ready for a PBS-style docudrama will surely be surprised by the 8 Mile-infused violin battle between our titular character Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and a little-known composer who went by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Bologne shows off his otherworldly musical talent and upstages Mozart's concert, which is filled with everyone from the high societies of Paris. But Joseph's skills don't stop at the strings. They also extend to the tip of his fencing sword, which often finds itself buried within the chest of his opponents. The combination of his gifts grants him an audience with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette (when their heads were still connected to the rest of their body), who bestow upon him the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges. But while his lofty title might grant him acclaim and access to powerful inner circles on paper, it doesn't mean much in practice due to the overwhelming racism of the time.
Making her feature film debut after penning several scripts for hit FX shows such as Fargo, What We Do in the Shadows, and Atlanta, Stefani Robinson does great work unearthing details about Bologne's life, with some dramatization used to fill in the gaps lost in time, such as his every-changing personal relationship with Antoinette. There are both simple and complex reasons why Bologne's name doesn't live on today while Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach are taught as early as elementary school. Joseph's racial differences are not entirely external as well, as he struggles internally with his mixed-race heritage on account of an illegitimate relationship between his French father and Senegalese mother. The more he tries to enter European society, the more he also abandons the culture he was born into, essentially making him an outcast everywhere he walks.
Harrison Jr. has emerged as one of our finest working actors, with lead performances in 2019's Luce and Waves acting as a one-two illustration of his charm and magnetism. Williams and Robinson tap into that same vein here, relying upon Harrison to convey why Bologne was so undeniable as a performer, with audiences unable to take their eyes off him. There is a supreme amount of confidence on the outside of Bologne, with the inner self being vulnerably conflicted.
But there is nothing vulnerable about Williams' camera, however, as it boldly snakes its way through Karen Murphy’s lavish sets. That electric pace from the opening moment is captured within a bottle, harnessed throughout the entire runtime until it is released with gusto in the final scene set during the kindling of the French Revolution.
Chevalier still would have been one of the best movies of 2022 had Searchlight chosen to release it within the bloodbath that is Oscar season. Thankfully, they're smarter than me and waited until 2023, where it now sits firmly on the throne above the mostly average products we've been presented so far.