(director: Charles Shyer; screenwriter: John Sweet; cinematographer: Ashley Rowe; editor: David Moritz; music: David Newman; cast: Hilary Swank (Jeanne de la Motte- Valois), Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Rohan), Simon Baker (Retaux), Adrien Brody (Nicolas), Brian Cox (Breteuil), Joely Richardson (Marie Antoinette), Christopher Walken (Cagliostro); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Andrew A. Kosove/Broderick Johnson/Charles Shyer/Redmond Morris; Warner Bros.; 2001)


“I felt as if I was at an Yves St. Laurent fashion show and the actors were modeling the latest in 18th-century fashions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Affair of the Necklace is a jejune historical period drama loosely based on a true story. It portends that one of the more serious causes of the French Revolution in 1793 was the scandal over an expensive 647-diamond necklace involving the greedy Bourbon monarchy, a dissolute cardinal and the opportunistic Countess. I have no idea what made the hot property at the time Hilary Swank take this dreary role of the Countess Jeanne de la Motte-Valois after her success in Boys Don’t Cry, as opportunities were there to chose anything but this lumbering 18th-century costume show. This film is fueled in a silly way by displaying a parade of aristocrats acting out their decadence in a campy way, which undermines the serious tone the film wanted to establish. But even that couldn’t generate laughs. The entire cast is miscast. The leading culprits are the overacting and scene stealing Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Rohan and Christopher Walken as the charlatan alchemist Cagliostro. While the earnest Swank is in a role that demands deceit not earnestness, who always has the frightened look of someone lost in the woods and seems to be in a pic she has no business being in. It’s weakly directed by Charles Shyer (Baby Boom). I felt as if I was at an Yves St. Laurent fashion show and the actors were modeling the latest in 18th-century fashions.

The film makes constant use of a voice-over and printed titles to relate what’s happening onscreen, but nothing can help clear up matters. It opens to when the Countess is on trial in the French Parliament in 1786, and she has a flashback to her happy childhood in 1767 which quickly changes on the day the royal soldiers killed her noble father and took away her castle and her aristocratic title. Her mother soon dies of a broken heart and she grows up an orphan. Her valued family name of Valois goes back five generations and they claim to be a direct descendant to Henri II, but the name is now dishonored all because her father dared to speak out publicly against the poverty the monarchy was indifferent to.

As a young lady Jeanne marries a philandering titled man, Count Nicolas (Brody), she does not love in order to secure a title so she can hang around the court of Louis XVI in Versailles and somehow besiege Queen Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson) to restore her birthright and property. She catches the eye of a handsome gigolo, Retaux de la Villette (Simon Baker), who gets romantically interested in her and teaches her the ropes on how to get around in Versailles, and together they scheme to convince the wealthy and lecherous Cardinal Rohan that Marie Antoinette will be pleased with him and will grant his request to be prime minister if he presents the queen with the valuable necklace–which will clear up the bad blood she has for him over the last ten years. It’s a diamond necklace that they come across after the royal jeweler is disappointed that he was turned down by Marie Antoinette. She turns him down since the necklace was made for Madame DuBarry, mistress to her husband’s grandfather and someone she considers a whore, and was not made for her, and not because it’s so costly and would put a dent in the government’s budget and upset the people of France. She entices the cardinal to purchase the necklace after she forges a number of letters from Marie Antoinette to him and has an impostor pose as Marie Antoinette when they meet face-to-veil. The Rasputin-like figure, Cagliostro (Christopher Walken), sees the rip-off and maneuvers to extort a piece of the action from the Countess lest he spoil her plans.

Once these plot points are settled the film becomes a long drag, as it just goes nowhere. The House Minister, Breteuil (Brian Cox), walks around in a showy costume and a hat with enough plumage on it that it could have been stolen from the set of American Pimp. He scowls and barks out orders and smells out that there’s a scheme afoot when he senses the jeweler is acting strangely giddy. For such a talented character actor like Brian Cox, it was a shame to see him wasted in such an ill-conceived film.

Ms. Swank is asked to carry the film as its naive heroine and is asked to be such a cunning manipulator that she must outwit a sly fox like the cardinal, the wily businessman jeweler, and the devious Cagliostro, the so-called leader of the German Illuminati, but she’s too clueless about how to carry herself to make her role believable. This film would have worked better as a slapstick comedy and if it had cast Danny Devito, Adam Sandler, and Goldie Hawn in the title roles. What the director never understood about these unpleasant royal characters was that none of them deserved our sympathy, including the befuddled dummy Swank plays. Having Swank portrayed as a martyr in order to get us to sympathize for her plight, seemed unwarranted and took the film down with her bad characterization.

REVIEWED ON 1/28/2003 GRADE: C –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”