Producers: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Stefani Robinson and Dianne McGunigle Director: Stephen Williams Screenplay: Stefani Robinson Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, Marton Csokas, Alex Fitzalan, Minnie Driver, Sian Clifford, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Joseph Prowen, Jim High, Jessica Boone and Ben Bradshaw Distributor: Searchlight Films
Joseph Bologne (+1799) was one of the most extraordinary men of his age. Born in the early 1740s in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy French plantation owner and a Senegalese slave, he was brought to France by his father around 1749 and became a virtuoso fencer as well as a talented violinist and composer. But his biracial background limited the possibilities open to him, both legally and socially, and though he had earlier enjoyed the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette, he was an adherent of the revolution of 1789, even leading an all-black legion in battle. Like so many, however, he fell afoul of the increasing radicalism of the 1790s and suffered imprisonment under Robespierre. His later years saw his popularity return to some degree, but after his death Napoleon’s policies led to the suppression of his music, though some survived. In recent decades recognition of his remarkable accomplishments has grown.
In constructing a biographical film about Bologne, screenwriter Stefani Robinson has fashioned a portrait of a charismatic man struggling to assert himself in a world where the odds were stacked against him while also coming to terms with his own identity as a person of mixed race. In doing so she has employed the skeleton of fact about his life and career, but liberally embellished it with speculation and simple invention, closing with a note of triumph that’s more wishful thinking than reality. While dramatically effective in a rather blunt fashion, the result too often panders to contemporary expectations when a more subtle and accurate approach could have carried greater weight.
A similar observation might be made about the music score, credited to Kris Bowers and Michael Abels; some is based on Bologne’s actual compositions, but much of that has been rearranged to give it a more modern sound, as though the originals weren’t adequately “revolutionary.” (In fact, his works are pleasant but typical examples of the galant style of the period; you can listen to fairly extensive excerpts performed in their untouched form on YouTube.)
As directed in more workmanlike than inspired fashion by Stephen Williams, the film follows Bologne over a four-decade period, from the point at which his father (Jim High) brings him for instruction to the academy headed by Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière (Ben Bradshaw), where he excels in fencing and music but must suffer mistreatment by his classmates, through 1789, when he plays for the rebellious mob in defiance of the authorities. Except for the opening scenes, he’s embodied by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“Luce”), an intense young actor who succeeds in expressing both Bologne’s physical grace (demonstrated in a fencing exhibition before King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, after which the queen—played rather weakly by Lucy Boynton—rewards him with the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges) and his cocky self-confidence as a musician.
The latter is made clear even in the bravura but misconceived opening sequence, in which Bologne is portrayed—anachronistically in every possible respect—engaging in an impromptu violin-playing contest with none other than Mozart (Joseph Prowen), depicted as a preening brat (shades of “Amadeus”). From a musical perspective, the embellishments Bologne is shown adding to the Mozart concerto they jointly perform reek of nineteenth-century romanticism rather than eighteenth-century classicism. From a historical one, while it’s true that Mozart knew Bologne (they actually stayed in the same patron’s house during one of Mozart’s stays in Paris), there’s no evidence they were rivals; rather they appear to have admired one another, and Mozart learned from the older Bologne.
The same problems recur in the final sequence of Bologne’s performance in 1789. The piece he plays may be based on a theme of his, but it’s refashioned to sound like something John Williams might have composed. (Compare it to the lightly retouched Bologne concerto played over the final credits.) And the triumphant caption about the black legion he led neglects to mention that he was removed from his post, and of course that he was later denounced as disloyal to the revolution and imprisoned.
What is depicted between these two bookending sequences? Much is made of a rumored affair between him and Marie-Josephine de Montalembert (pretty but vacuous Samara Weaving), whose jealous husband Marc René (scenery-chewing Marton Csokas), the marquis, becomes his implacable enemy. The same is true of his friendship with the reform-minded young Duke of Orléans, Louis Philippe II (a lightweight Alex Fitzalan). Both have basis in fact, though the screenplay gives the marquis an exaggerated primacy among the monarchists (while turning Marie-Josephine into Bologne’s preferred soprano, for which there is no evidence), and, as with Bologne, overlooks the fate of the duke, who, while so ardent a revolutionary that he voted to execute the king, was deemed a counter-revolutionary and executed during the Reign of Terror.
Of equal importance to the story is the tale of his musical career, marked by antagonism with personal and racial overtones. The central event is his application to the directorship of the Paris Opera, which actually was derailed by opposition from the influential Marie-Madeleine Guimard (haughty Minnie Driver), whose advances he had spurned, and singers like Sophie Arnould (Jessica Boone), who objected to taking direction from a mulatto.
So much is accurate. But the film elects to add to the mix a contest with another eminent composer of the day, Christoph Willibald Gluck (effete Henry Lloyd-Hughes)—who is portrayed, like Mozart earlier on, as his direct rival, at best an exaggeration. The choice of director is orchestrated here as dependent on which of the two candidates will compose the superior opera, and Bologne’s is “Ernestine,” in the mounting of which he enlists the formidable Madame de Genlis (Sian Clifford), and for which he chooses Marie-Josephine as his star. A good deal of time is devoted to that choice, which includes rehearsals focusing on a single phrase from an aria in which Marie-Josephine shines (the number, one of the few surviving portions of the otherwise lost piece, can be heard in full in several YouTube clips). But of course Gluck wins out for reasons other than excellence (though in fact he never became director of the opera, though some of his works were staged there) and “Ernestine” was a flop, getting only a single performance. None of that is mentioned, however.
A final piece of the story “Chevalier” tells has to do with Bologne’s growing embrace of his African roots, here explained by the influence of his mother Nanon (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, a bit too shrewdly calculating), whom he came to know only when she came to live with him after his father’s death. She introduced him, the script suggests, to the life and culture of the black residents in Paris, an experience that propelled him to embrace more revolutionary ideas. Possible, certainly, but purely speculative.
So the picture is a tissue of facts, half-truths, inventions and speculation, in that regard not unlike the biopics about American composers Hollywood produced in the forties and fifties. It’s a reasonably handsome picture, with an impressive production design by Karen Murphy and eye-catching costumes by Oliver Garcia, elegant cinematography by Jess Hall and fairly crisp editing by John Axelrad. But in the end it’s a pretty facile, overly simplified, factually dubious if good-looking portrait of a complex man whose multifaceted career deserved more nuanced treatment.