The story of Mozart’s rival is worth rediscovering

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(M) 108 minutes

The opening scene of Chevalier has its hero, the black composer/musician Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison), crashing one of Mozart’s concerts and upstaging him on the violin to the astonishment of an audience made up of the Parisian elite. The incident is probably apocryphal. If Bologne and Mozart did meet in Paris, as is likely, their positions would have been reversed, with Bologne the established celebrity and Mozart the struggling newcomer.

Kelvin Harrison jnr (left), Samara Weaving and Alex Fizalan in Chevalier.

Otherwise, the film is broadly based on fact. Bologne was awarded the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Marie Antoinette, who was charmed by him and his talents, exerting her patronage to make him one of the most fashionable figures at the French court.

It was Chevalier’s writer-producer Stefani Robinson who convinced the film’s backers his was a life worth rediscovering. Her fellow television veteran Stephen Williams (Watchmen, Westworld) came on as director and they have conjured up the story of a remarkable man played out against a highly polished evocation of Parisian court society in the years leading up to the Revolution.

Bologne is a child when his father, a wealthy French plantation owner, takes him from his mother, a 16-year-old Senegalese slave, to be educated in Paris. It’s here Bologne is deposited at a posh boarding school with this brutally concise piece of parting advice: if you want to survive, be excellent at everything you do.

Bologne takes this to heart. As well as developing a reputation for his musical gifts, he becomes a fencing champion and promptly sets about puncturing the school bullies’ pretensions with and without his rapier.

Kelvin Harrison jnr stars as composer/musician Joseph Bologne, who was a favourite of Marie Antoinette.

Modesty is one virtue he doesn’t cultivate, however, and the divas of the day – led by Minnie Driver doing battle with a towering black wig – prove to be as susceptible to his charms as Marie Antoinette. But Bologne snubs them, choosing another much younger singer, Marie-Josephine (Australian actress Samara Weaving), to perform his latest composition.

It’s not his wisest decision. One look at the perpetual scowl worn by Marton Csokas as her husband, the Marquis de Montalambert, is enough to alert you to the trouble he’s about to bring down on his head.

Slim, lithe and urbane, Harrison (Cyrano) makes a dashing Bologne. If he verges on cockiness, you can understand why. Weaving and Lucy Boynton, who plays Marie Antoinette, manage to marry a show of aristocratic hauteur with a sharp understanding of two women whose desires are frequently at odds with the lives they’re forced to lead.

Both Robinson and Williams share a particular interest in this unfairly neglected episode in black history, but they never allow polemics to overwhelm the narrative. The film’s critics have mostly been musical purists who believe the script concentrates on Bologne’s love life at the expense of his career. Maybe they’re right, but the rest of us can feel free to just sit back and enjoy it.

Chevalier is released in cinemas on August 2.

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