The success of period pieces usually depends on the fortuitous merging of key elements, ranging from the right director working with an intelligent script, to actors who are suitable not just for their individual roles, but also the distinctive tone of the film.
Sadly, "The Affair of the Necklace" is rife with wrong people in major jobs, which leads to a movie that lacks the requisite verve to make to it sparkle.
The intriguing tale, scripted by first-time screenwriter John Sweet, is loosely based on a true story that which transpired in the French court of Louis XVI in the late 18th Ccentury, on the cusp of the French Revolution. According to historians, there was a beautiful countess by the name of Jeanne St. Remy de Valois (Hilary Swank), who was born into royalty, but lost her claim to blue blood when her father was killed for speaking out against the excesses of the crown. Years later, desperate to reclaim her lands and position, Jeanne tried to curry favor with the haughty Queen Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson), but when her efforts failed, she took it upon herself to buy her position back, an act that would require many more francs than she had in her purse.
Jeanne's daring scheme for honor and revenge, revolving around a priceless necklace originally made for the late Louis XV's mistress, comprises the main plot line of the film, gradually drawing in a series of co-conspirators (both willing and duped), including a powerful but immoral Cardinal (Jonathan Pryce), a randy court insider (Simon Baker), a conniving soothsayer (Christopher Walken) and Jeanne's philandering husband (Adrien Brody).
The story isn't a bad one, and in the hands of a seasoned or daring director, it might have had the necessary amount of juice to make it tasty. (I kept wondering what 1970's director Ken Russell could have done with the material.)
But Charles Shyer, whose directing career has been thick with light comedies ("Baby Boom," "I Love Trouble"), exhibits little flair for the ebb and flow of a costume caper movie. The film is too civilized, too subdued, lacking the naughtiness that makes such stories fun.
Another problem is that Hillary Swank, so impressive in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry," is wrong for the part of Jeanne. She looks, sounds and acts too contemporary, and putting her in puffy dresses and outrageous hats only serves to accentuate her inappropriateness for the part. The same goes for Brody, who always seems on the verge of saying "Yo, Jeanne, wassup?"
Despite the critical beating that this film has been taking on both coasts, it's not a full-fledged disaster. It's just that it's so much less than it might have been.
"The Affair of the Necklace" Directed by Charles Shyer; written by John Sweet; photographed by Ashley Rowe; production designed by Alex McDowell; edited by David Moritz; music by David Newman. A Warner Bros. release. Opens Tuesday. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: R. Sex, nudity.
Jeanne St. Remy de Valois.....Hilary Swank
Cardinal Louis de Rohan.....Jonathan Pryce
Retaux de Vilette.....Simon Baker
Nicolas De La Motte.....Adrien Brody
Marie Antoinette.....Joely Richardson
Count Cagliostro.....Christopher Walken
Minister Breteuil.....Brian Cox