Affair of the Necklace, The (2001): Hilary Swank’s Post-Oscar Film, Year’s Worst Films

Much of the dramatic juice and historical intrigue has been drained out of “The Affair of the Necklace,” an old-fashioned costume drama that’s stiff, stuffy, and banal. In her first major role after winning a well-deserved Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry,” Hilary Swank is miscast as the real-life Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a dishonored woman who dedicated her entire life to regaining the honor of her family, having being disenfranchised by the Royal Court just prior to the French Revolution.

Charles Shyer, better known for his frivolous comedies (“Baby Boom,” the 1991 “The Father of the Bride”) proves to be the wrong director for rendering a lively account of a scandalous affair that almost brought down the French monarchy. Bleak commercial prospects await this Warner release, which is afflicted with a bad, unappetizing title, and likely to be dismissed by critics as an archaic period drama that even fails to exploit its lurid tabloid-like gossip.

Though virtually unknown in America, the eighteenth century scandal, known as “L’Affaire du Collier,” has long been infamous throughout Europe and particularly in France. In fact, Napoleon is known to have said that the three factors that had caused the momentous event of the French Revolution were: The military defeat at Rossbach during the Seven Year’s War, the lack of intervention in the Dutch Netherlands, and the Affair of the Necklace. Historians, too, have attributed a significant role to what they described as Europe’s most spectacular string of jewels, which lead to a curious and sensational liaison around a woman of denied nobility and the Royal Family itself.

The story is framed as a court trial, in which a young woman, Jeanne de la Motte-Valois (Hilary Swank), is about to hear the verdict of her disgraceful behavior. After a brief prologue, a flashback set in 1767 introduces Jeanne as a little girl who’s forced to witness the invasion and burning of her parents’ estate. Soon after, young Jeanne is tragically orphaned, all along clinging to her only inheritance–and invaluable evidence: a tattered chart that proved her noble origins.

Jumping to 1784, the yarn finds Jeanne as an intriguingly beautiful femme, determined to use every resource in her possession to exonerate her family’s name. It was a matter of public knowledge that, to gain access to the Royal Court, Jeanne married a dubiously titled count, Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody), who served as a philandering husband of convenience. Once placed within the great palace’s walls, Jeanne enlisted the tutelage of a court rogue, a handsome gigolo named Retaux de Villette (Simon Baker), who introduced her to its invidious cast of characters and taught her the ins and outs of court life. Despite her aggressive efforts, Jeanne was coldly ignored, which forced her to scheme a clever, if dangerous game, namely, get hold of the 2,800 carat, 647-diamond necklace, which was so costly that allegedly no Royal Court in the Continent could afford to purchase it.

Central drama revolves around a quintet of characters that includes, in addition to Jeanne and Retaux, Louis de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce), the morally dubious French Cardinal, who desperately desired the Prime Ministership and was willing to do anything to get it; Queen Marie Antoinette (Richardson), who had come to despise the Cardinal, consistently blocking his path; and Count Cagliostro (Christopher Walken), a Svengali whose prognostications were taken as gospel by the Cardinal.

In one of many indolently staged climaxes, Jeanne, using her manipulative wit and alluring charm, persuades the Cardinal that the Queen not only wishes to reconcile with him but also is also willing to front the money for the luxurious necklace. The scheme needs to be executed is utmost secrecy from the French populace, that had increasingly become angered by the queen’s greed conduct and various excesses.

Inexperienced scribe John Sweet works hard to invest the old tale with immediacy, wishing to suggest that the intrigues of the rich and powerful of yesteryear’s high society France could be found today in the corridors of the White House and other high-powered sites in Washington, D.C. Straining to imbue the historical figure with a more contemporary meaning, Jeanne is described as a honest woman, who acted by dictates of her heart, and whose sole motivation was not wealth, but rather a quest for honor denied her and her parents when they were disenfranchised after falling out of favor with the Royal court.

Much in the manner of American screen protagonists who stress the importance of personal code of honor, Jeanne comes across as a prototypical modern woman, who obsessively set out to regain her honor and heritage by taking her rightful place at the Royal Court of Versailles. Her impetus, which is repeatedly stated in dialogue and in voice-overs, becomes the story’ central motif, as she says, “I wish to restore the vision of home denied me, the sense of place I have never known.”

Though based on research, Shyer’s treatment is disappointingly long-winded, failing to find a dynamically engaging way to present the myriad of historical details to present-day viewers. After all, the tumultuous scandal not only had explosive, far-reaching effects on the dismantling of the French aristocracy (and the whole rigid class system) and the sparking of undeniable revolutionary fervor, but its “basic facts” have remained controversial or undetermined. Indeed, questions still abound as to who really masterminded the elaborate, consequential plot. At the court trial, which concludes the film, Jeanne is exiled to England, never allowed to return to France; a title card reveals that she died in a British hotel.

By necessity, scripter Sweet had to use his imagination to fill in the many blanks and come up with his own version of the events. However, it doesn’t help much that only at rare intervals do the characters express themselves in ordinary human speech. Indeed, vastly uneven, the banter is neither historically accurate nor convincingly modern. In recent successful period dramas, such as Wajda’s “Danton” or Rohmer’s “The Lady and the Duke,” the dialogue reflected the zeitgeist, and the speeches were treated as the essence of dramatic action. In contrast, in “Affair of the Necklace,” the talk is haughty and stilted. And the voice-overs, instead of illuminating or commenting on the action, mostly serve as links between the various events, most of which are illustrated with sumptuous, postcard-like imagery.

Making things worse is the contemporaneous image of most of the leading actors, and primarily Swank. This is the third consecutive role, following the gender-bending “Boys Don’t Cry” and psychological thriller “The Gift,” in which Swank plays a victimized or abused woman. And while she excelled in the former and barely acquitted herself honorably in the latter, here, her performance seems constrained by the period, the tedious and pretentious lines she’s asked to deliver, and even the elaborate garb she’s wearing. Based on her latest turn, it’s still hard to predict whether Swank is a major talent, or an actress who benefited from a match between part and personality in her prize-winning role.

The production’s most impressive dimensions are the French Revolution settings (the film was shot in Prague) and costumes, which come to vivid life courtesy of Alex McDowell’s production design and sumptuous wardrobe by multiple Oscar-winning Milena Canonero.