Thursday, April 20, 2023

King Creole: Kelvin Harrison Jr. Is a Classical Music Star in 18th-Century France in Chevalier

(Stephen Williams, USA, 2023, PG-13, 117 minutes) 

One glance at an any random encyclopedia entry for Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is all it takes to understand why this little-known classical musician and composer merits a major motion picture: the semi-illegitimate son of a 16-year-old slave, Saint-Georges scaled the highest of heights in Marie Antoinette-era France. 

Like Saint-Georges, director Stephen Williams has West Indian roots--Kingston, Jamaica, in his case. After establishing his directorial bona fides in Canada, where he grew up, Williams went on to a thriving career in American television, including high-profile shows like Lost and Watchmen

If I didn't know his subject was a real person, I would assume he was pure fiction, not least when Williams opens the film with an unlikely violin duel between the obscure Saint-Georges (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the celebrated Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Joseph Prowen). The latter would famously inspire Peter Shaffer's Tony-winning play, Amadeus, which would, in turn, provide the raw material for Miloš Forman's Oscar-winning adaptation in whose shadow most classical music biopics tend to pale. 

In Chevalier, Mozart is a bit player, and he won't return after Saint-Georges convinces the musician and composer to let him share the stage. The upstart doesn't even have an instrument with him, so an orchestra member loans him his violin. The look on Mozart's face indicates that he plans to put this gatecrasher in his place, but Saint-Georges knocks him--and the rouged and powdered audience--out with his virtuosic playing (in real life, Saint-Georges was 11 years Mozart's senior). None of this struck me as especially believable, though Harrison, who has been playing since childhood, makes for a convincing violinist. 

From there, Williams takes a brief look back at Saint-Georges's youth.  Product of a liaison between George Bologne (Jim High), a French plantation owner, and Nanon (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), a Senegalese-Guadeloupian slave, he enters life as a free man when Bologne gives him his name and sends him to France's finest schools, but a slave master is still a slave master, no matter how ornately he gilds the lily. Bologne doesn't, for instance, marry Nanon--like most such men, he was already married, after all--but some time after she is freed, Saint-Georges invites her to live with him once he has established himself in French society. 

So, the father gives the son a fighting chance, and he takes it. If Saint-Georges must contend with every manner of bigotry along the way, his talent can't be denied. So far so good, except things take a soap operatic turn when he meets the unhappily married Marie-Josephine (Ready or Not's Samara Weaving) who longs to star in his opera Ernestine (with a libretto by Les Liaisons Dangereuses author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). 

Her military general husband, Marc René, Marquis de Montalembert (Asylum's Marton Csokas), doesn't want her to have anything to do with music--or a certain Black man--but when he leaves for an extended trip abroad, she throws caution to the wind, wins the part, and gains a lover. 

Harrison and Weaving are fine, but the script from Stefani Robinson (Atlanta, What We Do in the Shadows) doesn't allow them to be much more than symbols. She's talented and beautiful, and he's much the same, except he's Black, so they can't wed, because interracial marriage was illegal under Code Noir. Even if it wasn’t, her hothead husband could cause grievous harm to one or the both of them--and get away with it, too. 

Saint-Georges must also contend with Antoinette (Bohemian Rhapsody's Lucy Boynton), a powerful supporter who distances herself when it serves her purposes, and La Guimard (Beyond the Lights' Minnie Driver), a diva who offers to help him out professionally if he'll help her out in a more personal way. At risk to his career, he resists her advances, and she spends the rest of the film looking aggrieved in proto-goth lipstick

Chevalier won praise for Harrison's performance when it premiered at Toronto last year, and that inspired me to check it out, having admired his work since 2017's It Comes at Night. He also appeared in Trey Schultes' follow-up, Waves, but he gives his trickiest, most nuanced performance to date in Julius Onah's Luce. In it, he plays an Eritrea-born star athlete raised by a well meaning American couple, played by Funny Games duo Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. Luce served as a child soldier, and no one knows what that entailed--and whether his carefully-molded model citizen veneer is cover for a ticking time bomb capable of great violence. 

In the years since, he's played singers and guitarists in Elvis and on FX's Godfather of Harlem. In retrospect, those roles feel like dress rehearsal for his first leading role as a musician. 

If I'm convinced that Harrison is capable of greatness, Chevalier doesn’t quite get him there, but top-lining a prestigious studio picture will surely help to create more such opportunities in the future. One way or the other, I'm glad this film was made. It doesn't hurt that it involves so many people of color behind the scenes, including composer and arranger Michael Abels, who worked on all three of Jordan Peele's feature films. 

More people, especially those outside of the classical music community, should know about Saint-Georges. In addition to his many operas, symphonies, and concertos--most lost due to Napoleon's racist edits--he was also a dedicated abolitionist and a formidable fencer. After over two centuries, he's finally having a moment, since he also appears in The Favourite co-writer Deborah Davis's new BBC series Marie Antoinette. I only wish Chevalier was a deeper and richer tribute to his talents. 


Chevalier opens on Friday, June 21, at the Regal Meridian, AMC Seattle 10, and Regal Thornton Place, among other area theaters. Images: Searchlight Pictures (Kelvin Harrison Jr. with and without Samara Weaving) and Larry Horricks/Searchlight Pictures (Harrison with Joseph Prowen)

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