The Affair of the Necklace
review by Paula Nechak, 28 December 2001

In Charles Shyer's unapologetically shameless, woozy, romance novel of a movie, the despised French Queen Marie Antoinette is proclaimed guilty of "excess, greed and indifference." Much the same might be said of Shyer's shamelessly biased bodice ripper.

Based on the fascinating true history of one Jeanne de la Motte-Valois (played by Hilary Swank), Shyer, who's screen credits include the remake of "Father of the Bride," has not-so- subtly attempted to elevate her plight to the iconic status of another famous Jeanne de - Jeanne de Arc. All the subtleties of court life and the chronic conspiracies that slithered beneath the facade of regal manners and powdered wigs have never felt as stacked as in this deck of duplicitous, dilettante-ish cinematic cards.

The Affair of the Necklace reminded me of another bastardized history, in its case about America's shift from wild west to industry, as seen through the eyes of one family. Director Ed Zwick turned American Indian lore into the white man's burden in the near-laughable melodrama "Legends of the Fall." Brad Pitt over-acting the spoiled middle son who runs roughshod over land, animal and woman and Anthony Hopkins imitating Popeye as he growled "F*ck 'em!" after having had a debilitating stroke were only two of its lesser problems.

Like The Affair of the Necklace, as a sweeping epic of a complex, transitional time it did nothing but generalize the era and it stubbornly refused to find anything deeper than surface righteousness in the traits of all concerned. The "good guys" were faultless, noble and right, despite their shady doings and immorality. The bad guys were simply, lawless and violent sub-creatures because they would not yield to the good guys' whims.

Shyer does much the same in his period piece, eradicating the truly interesting aspects of Jeanne's personality and influence on the uprising of the poverty-stricken classes that led to the ultimate eruption of the French Revolution in favor of making her a saint and martyr, devoid of any depth, cruelty or color. This is French history run through a de-flavorizer.

Jeanne St. Remy de Valois was a happy child, loved by her Reformist father, who became a champion of the people. But the ruthless Monarchy of King Louis XVI and his demanding wife Marie Antoinette (played petulantly by Joely Richardson) changed her fate. When her father is murdered, her mother literally dead by grief and the family estate in escrow to the King, Jeanne, now a sprightly young woman of limited means, finds herself trapped in a marriage by arrangement to dissolute Count Nicolas De La Motte (a miscast Adrien Brody). After several misguided attempts to attract the Queen's attention in hope of regaining her family home and name, Jeanne instead attracts a savvy young gigolo of the court, Retaux de Vilette (Aussie Simon Baker), who educates her in the way of society and ultimately, the bedroom.

Retaux de Vilette tells Jeanne that the Versailles court is full of "lechers and parasites" and the only way to regain her name is to observe what each participant wants. Their eyes settle on the lascivious, corrupt Cardinal Louis de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce), a ruthless, vain cleric who has fallen out of favor with the Queen and will do anything to be reinstated into her good faith 

Jeanne and the Retaux mastermind a complex plot that involves a lavish diamond necklace, "a tribute to the vanity of man," that would defy any Presidential scandal or public relations misbehavior gracing Page Six of the The New York Post today. It's a plot that will bring down an empire and disgrace a loathed Monarchy, culminating in an uprising by the people that remains unprecedented in French history.

Unfortunately The Affair of the Necklace skims over the more beguiling aspects of the intrigue, laboring to exacerbate Jeanne's discrimination by repeatedly banging us over the head with slow-motion shots of her father being dragged and bludgeoned by soldiers and a mysterious chair tossed from an upper window of the family home, now engulfed by flames. These images pulse through Jeanne's brain again and again (and again), straining the running time of Shyer's film, surpassing already questionable, qualified boundariess of good taste.

It's possible the film could be thought of as a guilty pleasure for those who enjoy the genre - and - with Christopher Walken stepping in as mesmerizer Cagliostro, it certainly promises a snigger or two. But in truth, The Affair of the Necklace is an indulgent vanity project. While the onus of blame must rest on Shyer's shoulders for his lack of restraint, it may well fall instead of the narrower shoulders of Hilary Swank.

She won an Oscar for Boys Don't Cry but that film was a directing and writing coup, destined to give praise to any actress who may have stepped into Brandon Teena's shoes. This affair just might come back to haunt Swank by reminding us that her abilities have extenuating circumstances attached - when she is blessed by a shining script, she also shines. When the role is as overwrought as this, her limitations become glaringly apparent because unlike a Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett or Julianne Moore, she can't transcend the material with the sheer force of her presence.

Directed by:
Charles Shyer

Starring:
Hilary Swank
Simon Baker
Adrien Brody
Jonathan Pryce
Christopher Walken
Joely Richardson
Brian Cox

Written by:
John Sweet

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian.

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