Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, and Alex Fizalan in Chevalier. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

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In the opening scene of Chevalier, the new historical drama about a violin virtuoso, the protagonist upstages Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. They share a stage together, performing parallel lead violin for an orchestral piece, and a kind of duel ensues—almost like the classical equivalent of a rap battle. Like the 1984 film Amadeus, a clear influence on Chevalier, director Stephen Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson enliven the 18th century with ideas and traditions from modern pop culture. Whereas Amadeus explores the nature of creativity and arts appreciation at its deepest, Williams’ biopic devolves into melodramatic cliches and implausible historical distortion.

On top of his skill with a violin, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) knows how to wield a sword. We learn from flashback that Joseph is the son of a French landowner and an enslaved Black woman; at a young age his father sends him to a French conservatory where he can nurture his innate gift for music. Now as a young man, Joseph is the toast of Paris, so after an impressive duel (with swords not violins this time), Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) bestows him the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges. In this telling, Joseph’s confidence and charisma are his defining qualities, which helps him win the attention of Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), a married opera singer. Having conquered French society, at least in his mind, Joseph sets his sight on becoming the leader of the Paris opera. But French society will not let a Black man have such power or influence, and he is brutally reminded of both the institutional and personal racism that puts a limit on his success.

Excellent production values and performance help with our immersion. Williams’ camera sweeps up in the story, almost literally, because complex editing and dolly shots create a kind of montage at its most elegant. All the costumes are a delight, right down to the powdered wigs, and Harrison’s innate charisma helps us believe that Joseph could bend French society to his will. That quality is also crucial to how he charms Marie-Josephine—naturally, her husband (Marton Csokas) is a dilettante and a brute—though Harrison gets an assist from Weaving’s likable performance, which includes anachronistic line readings and body language, as if she is more like a rom-com stock character than an actual aristocrat’s wife. All this leads to a scene of resentment and public humiliation, where Joseph is told something the film has been building to for its entire runtime: Despite his prowess and skill, he is nothing more than a novelty, or a parlor trick.

Unfortunately, Williams and Robinson diminish this climax by rehashing it, not considering its psychological consequences. Joseph deals with several indignities and tragedies, including one that is downright shocking and cruel, as if Chevalier does not trust its audience enough to internalize that 18th-century life really was terrible for Black people. Humiliated and left with no alternative, Joseph finds solace with his mother (Ronke Adekoluejo), who was previously a source of his embarrassment. She takes him to a section of Paris where Black people gather, and the music of his people is a balm. Playing in a drum circle can be rejuvenating, just not this rejuvenating, and this is the first of a series of plot choices that collapse any sort of historical and political context from the period.

Throughout Chevalier, Joseph encounters the beginnings of the French Revolution. Protests happen in the background, and Joseph’s closest friend (Alex Fitzalan) is an enlightened thinker who sees the monarchy as the main obstacle against true equality. In the film’s final act, Joseph joins in chants of “égalité,” culminating in a concert fundraiser for the revolution. Marie Antoinette intervenes, effectively becoming the film’s antagonist, which conflates the personal and the political in a facile way. It is unclear whether Joseph joins the cause because he believes in it, or he simply wants revenge against his betrayers, and the film seems to think the distinction is immaterial. At this point, Chevalier eschews any attempt of realism, which means we have awkward staging like when the Queen of France—after excoriating Joseph like a jilted best friend, not a monarch—stands unattended in the street without any protection. This simple, distorted view of heroes and villains reminds us we are watching a movie, another way of saying the film ultimately bends the suspension of disbelief until it breaks.

The final title cards inform us that once Napoleon took over France, he instituted racist policies that meant many records of Joseph’s triumphs were lost to history. In a way, this fact confirms what Joseph had to learn the hard way. In a slightly more cynical way, maybe the title card helps Robinson and Williams explain the liberties they took, whether it’s the frequent anachronisms or the platitudes that would be more at home on motivational Instagram posts, not a historical drama. There is nothing wrong with revisionism in movies, and it is often a lazy mistake to say films based on real people must always be accurate. But when the scope of a historical film narrows until all its sensibilities are modern, and we have little actual sense of the milieu where it takes place, then it loses its substance until we are left with something hollow.

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Chevalier opens in area theaters on April 21.