Directed by: Stephen Williams
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
Stephen Williams’s “Chevalier”–his first film in over 20 years–tells the story of Joseph Bologne, a composer, conductor, violinist, and fencer who rose to prominence during the era of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. He is promoted to the role of Chevalier–essentially the title of knight in France–by Lucy Boynton’s Marie Antoinette. The film begins a bit garishly with a neatly stylized duel between Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Mozart, as they each solo on violins. That sees Bologne upstage Mozart in front of his own audience in a sonically and visually pleasing contest.
The film focuses on Bolgone’s personal goals for the majority of the runtime until those goals and his behavior lead to consequences that steer him into political involvement he’d been avoiding. The film is at its best when steered away from the politics of the day and into the social drama around Bologne and the court of Antoinette. Such as his affair with Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) a married performer who cleverly remarks that marriage has nothing to do with love, shortly before their affair begins. This affair leads to the penultimate moment of the film, with Marie-Josephine giving birth to a child sired by Bologne and her husband killing the child. This loss results in Bologne eschewing his middle-of-the-road tact and upending his life, title, and status in an attempt to rectify the wrongs committed with the backdrop of all of Paris calling for revolution.
While the film is stymied and plodding in many of the ways modern costume dramas tend to be it gains some propulsion from the musical and performative elements of the artists playing artists within the film itself. With brief scene-stealing moments from Minnie Driver, and the cold reliability of Marton Csokas’s Montalembert, the ensemble comes together to create a mostly entertaining portrait of Paris in the late 1700s. Though “Chevalier” doesn’t quite pave a new path for costume dramas to come back to prominence it does show there is a way forward.