The Affair of the Necklace

             Admittedly, I'm a big fan of period pieces. No matter what the
     historical epoch being depicted, I can usually find something to like in
     the film. That said, I will have to confess that it was very difficult to achieve
     that goal while watching
The Affair of the Necklace, directed by Charles
     Shyer and written by John Sweet.

             In the years just prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution, the
     Comtesse de la Motte concocted an elaborate confidence plot in order
     to get her hands on a magnificent diamond necklace. She developed a
     scheme to obtain the jewelry by duping Cardinal Rohan, a man of the cloth
     with questionable values who had fallen out of favor with the French royal
     family. Promising the Cardinal that she could help mend the riff between
     him and Queen Marie Antoinette, the Comtesse de la Motte, along with
     her husband and a member of their household, Reteaux de Villette, crafted
     a series of forged letters from Marie Antoinette to Rohan and even arranged
     a meeting between the two (using an impostor as a stand-in for the queen).
     At this meeting, the "queen" made it known to the cardinal that she
     desired the diamond necklace and he in turn acquired it and turned it
     over to the Comtesse to deliver it to the queen. The Comte de la Motte
     fled to London with the necklace where he sold off various parts of it for
     the cash. Before his wife could join him, though, the matter was made
     public. Rohan was arrested and tried by parlement, but acquitted. Jeanne
     de la Motte was convicted and was punished before she eventually made
     her way to England. Because the cardinal was cleared, the frivolous and
     extravagant Marie Antoinette (already disliked by her subjects because of
     her Austrian heritage) was implicated in the affair. The whole matter was
     a prelude to the French Revolution which resulted in the execution of both
     Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI.

             While this incident is well-known in France, it isn't to an American
     audience (which barely knows its own history). So screenwriter John Sweet
     felt compelled to make changes in the story to make it more "dramatic." In
     his version, Jeanne de la Motte (Hilary Swank) isn't so much a charlatan
     and a cunning adventuress but a wronged woman who witnessed the murder
     of her father and the confiscation of her home. All she wants to do is restore
     the dignity to her family name. To accomplish her goal, she allies herself
     with the gigolo Reteaux (Simon Baker) who also has familial issues.
     Together they form a plan to dupe the oily Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce)
     into acquiring the diamond necklace. If part of their plan involves the
     haughty Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson), then so be it.

             Sweet's script follows the contours of the story but the details are
     changed so much that the tale become more and more fictionalized. It
     doesn't help that the filmmakers have opted to have a somewhat minor
     character of the Royal House Minister (Brian Cox) serve as narrator of
     the story; it further removes the audience from any identification with
     the main characters. Of course, it's dicey to build a film around a relatively
     unlikable person -- but it can be done. Sweet and director Shyer, however,
     have tried to turn Jeanne into a heroine and therein lies part of the
     problem. The historical figure is anything but. As portrayed by a badly
     miscast Hilary Swank, this Jeanne is a wounded bird out for vengeance.
     It's easy to see why the role may have held appeal for the actress -- a
     chance to demonstrate that her Oscar-winning performance in
Boys Don't Cry wasn't a fluke in a big costume epic. Swank looks
     intriguing in the period costumes (nicely designed by Academy Award
     winner Milena Canonero), but she has been coached to employ a
     quasi-British accent. (Indeed, Shyer has [mis]cast a motley crew of British,
     Australian and American actors in this distinctly French story.) Swank
     gamely tries to maintain a fully-rounded characterization, but her speech
     wobbles and she doesn't always seem able to plumb the dramatic depths
     required. Instead of a commanding figure, she appears to be a girl
     playing dress up. Of course, the script and direction offer her (or anyone
     in the cast) no support. It's doubtful any actress could have pulled off the
     role as written.

             The Affair of the Necklace had the potential to be a fascinating
     portrait of a 18th-century con artist. Instead, it takes a fascinating
     footnote and reduces it to a mediocre and fitfully entertaining film.

Rating:                 C-
MPAA Rating:      R for some sexuality
Running time:      118 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.