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‘Chevalier’ is a biopic without life

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film "CHEVALIER"
Larry Horricks
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film "CHEVALIER"

How’s this for a foolproof setup: Joseph Boulogne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was an 18th-century musician and composer, born of a wealthy Frenchman and an enslaved teenage African woman, and who none other than John Adams called, “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.” Oh, and he also became a revolutionary. I defy anyone to screw this premise up.

As it turns out, the people behind the new biopic Chevalier have decided to take up my challenge. A story that should have been full of swashbuckling, heat, creative ecstasy, and boldness instead turns inert, muted, and moody. It nods in the direction of those exciting things, but playing the notes and actually putting feeling behind them are not the same.

At one point, while auditioning singers for the opera he’s writing, Boulogne admonishes one particularly screechy candidate to perhaps sing with a little less passion. It’s the kind of light joke we’ve seen dozens of times, but it makes me wonder if the filmmakers took this a little too much to heart, and were afraid of their own shadows. The movie looks like a lot of movies we’re seeing these days, in that it looks like it was lit and shot using AI: it strips the vibrance out of the colors, the cityscapes are overly glossy, nothing seems real. And given the lack of life behind much of the film, I have a hard time blaming Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who plays Boulogne, for maintaining more or less the same expression for the entire running time, but someone made that decision. We’re told, repeatedly, how brash and confident Boulogne is, but we never really feel it, even when he walks on stage at the beginning of the film to challenge Mozart to a violin duel. We see it happen, but there’s no real fire.

Which brings me back to that auditioning opera singer—what’s wrong with some mistakes in pursuit of passion? Maybe we don’t want screeching, but I’ll happily take a messy outcome if I can truly feel the life, the creativity, the belief. Chevalier deserved those things, but instead it just plays the notes.

Chevalier is in theaters April 21st.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.