Every now and then, palace intrigue can be fun, and there can be no more glorious setting for schemers and adventurers than Versailles, home of France's absolute monarchs, the increasingly profligate Bourbons, toppled at last in 1793 by the French Revolution. With the elegant "The Affair of the Necklace," director Charles Shyer and writer John Sweet take us into this vanished world with aplomb and allow us to discover that in many ways, nothing much has changed.
In the years before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette faced the guillotine, it was obviously extremely dangerous to speak out against the regime, yet according to "The Affair of the Necklace," based on an infamous historical footnote, the nobleman Darnell de Valois publicly protested the poverty that beset the French people under Bourbon rule.
For his trouble, De Valois lost his ancestral castle and his life. Soon afterward, his wife died, leaving their little daughter, Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a direct descendant of Henri II, to grow up determined to reclaim her birthright and restore honor to her family name. Hilary Swank has followed her Oscar-winning portrayal of the ill-fated Nebraska girl who wanted to be a boy in "Boys Don't Cry" with a drastic change of milieu. Yet Swank brings to Jeanne the same touching, headstrong naivete that characterized Brandon Teena, along with glamorous allure and an assured ability to carry a large-scale costume picture.
By 1784, Jeanne, who made a marriage of convenience to the relatively impoverished and decidedly unfaithful young Count Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody), has despaired of getting a hearing with Louis via his government bureaucrats. She thus sets out to Versailles in hope of appealing, woman to woman, to Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson), only to be ignored, repeatedly.
Her beauty and spirit, however, do not go unnoticed by Retaux de Vilette (Simon Baker), a handsome gigolo who learned the workings of the court from his courtesan mother.
Several circumstances converge, at first deceptively promising for Jeanne but ultimately so disastrous that no less than Napoleon declared that the scandal generated by "l'affaire du collier" was a major factor in triggering the French Revolution, ending 800 years of absolute monarchy.
First is the queen's rejection of an awesome 2,800-carat, 647-diamond necklace, from hard-pressed jewelers to the royalty. She's fully aware it had been made for Madame DuBarry, mistress to her husband's grandfather, who died before he could give it to his beloved, and she's not about to wear a piece of jewelry intended for "that harlot." (Never mind that purchase of so stupendous a piece could in itself further undermine an already weakened monarchy.) Second is her loathing for the lecherous Cardinal de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce) for his role in some incident involving her Austrian royal family. Third is the cardinal's desire to become France's prime minister, a desire as strong as Jeanne's to reclaim her family's nobility.
With De Vilette's coaching, Jeanne makes her way in treacherous court life with a speed that inspires in her a scheme so risky as to be reckless, to put it mildly. Vilette tries to caution her, but she's past listening, and he's fallen hopelessly in love with her besides.
Shot in Czechoslovakia and France, "The Affair of the Necklace" brings to life an era in which elegance flourished as never before or since in Western civilization. However, it flourished at a cost of hardships to France's ordinary citizens that finally became unbearable.
Richardson's Marie Antoinette is more obtuse than wicked, ceaselessly self-indulgent yet possessed of dignity. Pryce, Baker and Brody are well-cast, and as usual there's a satisfying sense of completeness to Pryce's portrayal. Christopher Walken is a stylish and ominous Cagliostro, the cardinal's legendary but hardly infallible prognosticator. The film unfolds from the point of view of Louis' loyal, shrewd and ruthless key minister, Breteuil (Brian Cox, again in fine form), who foresees catastrophe looming for the Bourbons all too clearly.
Shyer and Sweet bring consistent clarity and ever-increasing depth to the playing out of Jeanne's bold scheming and single-minded resolve; a tone of brisk wit gives way effortlessly to poignancy and ultimately tragedy. It reminds in most entertaining fashion that human folly truly is eternal and concludes Jeanne's belated discovery that "honor is not in a name but what you carry in your heart."
"The Affair of the Necklace" is no paperback romance or swashbuckler it at first appears to be, but rather the remarkable odyssey of a young woman who lived to tell her amazing story herself.
MPAA-rated: R, for some sexuality. Times guidelines: The film's sexuality is relatively mild, but some violence is too intense for children.
'The Affair of the Necklace'
Hilary Swank...Jeanne de la Motte-Valois
Jonathan Pryce...Cardinal Louis de Rohan
Simon Baker...Retaux de Vilette
Adrien Brody...Nicolas de la Motte
Brian Cox...Minister Breteuil
Joely Richardson...Marie Antoinette
A Warner Bros. release of an Alcon Entertainment presentation. Director Charles Shyer. Producers Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Charles Shyer and Redmond Morris. Screenplay John Sweet. Cinematographer Ashley Rowe. Editor David Moritz. Music David Newman. Costumes Milena Canonero. Production designer Alex McDowell. Supervising art director Jean-Michel Hugon. Art directors Jean-Michel Ducourty, Martin Kurel (Prague). Set decorator Philippe Turlure. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
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