Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

dir Stephen Williams
scr Stefani Robinson
prd Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Cornelia Burleigh, Dianne McGunigle, Zahra Phillips
with Kelvin Harrison Jr, Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adekoluejo, Marton Czokas, Minnie Driver, Alex Fitzalan, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Alec Newman, Martin Matejcik, Jim High, Ben Bradshaw
release US 21.Apr.23,
UK 9.Jun.23
22/US Searchlight 1h40

weaving czokas driver

Is it streaming?

harrison and boynton
In recounting a little-known true story, this sparkling period drama grabs our attention from the start. It's a brisk, lavishly produced film with superb actors who inject nuance into their roles. So it's frustrating that the writing and direction are so obvious. Indeed, the filmmakers repeatedly miss opportunities in a narrative that's loaded with themes that are bracingly relevant today, nearly three centuries after the events took place.
Born in Guadeloupe as the illegitimate son of a French nobleman (High), the musical prodigy Joseph (Harrison) is taken from his slave mother Nanon (Adekoluejo) to be educated in Paris. Also a champion fencer, Joseph makes his name in 1760s society and is made a chevalier by Marie Antoinette (Boynton). In the king's court, he seeks to become director of Paris Opera, then falls for leading singer Marie-Josephine (Weaving). But a spurned woman (Driver) and Marie-Josephine's vicious husband (Czokas) cause trouble, and few are willing to let a mixed-race man succeed on his own terms.
A fizzy tone holds the interest even if plot gyrations feel naggingly predictable. Director Williams and writer Robinson take clues from the back-corridor gossip of Dangerous Liaisons, but without the incisive bite, and playfully include Bridgerton-style flirty shenanigans, although they are far more timid about that. Everything on-screen seems anachronistically scrubbed clean, from freshly sewn costumes and immaculate grooming to the spotlessly decorated opulence. And then there's the rather swampy romantic storytelling.

Thankfully, the cast rises above this to find the heart of the characters. Harrison is charismatic as the likeably cocky Joseph, who is often blinded by ambition. With his talent, it seems horrific that people simply push him aside. Boynton skilfully gives some edge to Marie Antoinette, especially later on, while Weaving offers soulfulness in a role that feels underdeveloped. Harrison has superb chemistry with both of them, and also with Adekoluejo, oddly sidelined as his lively mother. And Czokas does what he can with the requisite villain of the piece.

While known as the "Black Mozart", Joseph Bologne was clearly much more than that. And it's shameful that it has taken so long to tell his story, a fact that only highlights the salient themes of bigotry and privilege that infuse the narrative. So even if it is full of missteps and clumsy flourishes, this film at least brings this important historical figure into the spotlight. It leaves us hoping for the more sharply focussed biopic that this gifted man deserves.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 13.May.22

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall