When an entire film is created to assert the historical significance of one event, it had better live up to the importance placed upon it. That’s the principal flaw of The Affair of the Necklace, which claims that a conspiracy involving Marie Antoinette and a spectacular piece of jewelry was a key element in the French Revolution. The filmmakers may quote Napoleon Bonaparte himself, but they forget the cinema’s prime directive — show, don’t tell — and never convincingly make their point.
What The Affair of the Necklace does display is an unashamed nostalgia for the nobility. The family of Jeanne de la Motte Valois believed in noblesse oblige and openly questioned the monarchy; they were ruthlessly stripped of both title and property by a vengeful ruler. The adult Jeanne (Hilary Swank) makes her way to the glittering court of Louis XVI at Versailles as part of a lifelong quest for justice, which to her means the restoration of the noble life denied her.
While director Charles Shyer ably moves from light comedy (Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, I Love Trouble) to costume drama, he never delivers the gravitas needed for this tale of intrigue. Jeanne is earnest and dogged, but can’t muster the necessary ruthlessness for the plan she engineers with her lover, Retaux de la Villette (Simon Baker), masterful court parasite and gleeful gigolo. Despite Jeanne’s relationship with the questionable Villette — who, of course, is motivated by true love — director Shyer, screenwriter John Sweet and Swank herself never see her as anything but decent and heroic. That eliminates devious Dangerous Liaisons fun from Jeanne’s dalliances, even when her husband, Nicolas (Adrien Brody), slithers home from his carnal escapades.
Now, about that plan: It involves tricking the politically powerful, debauchery-loving Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce) into believing he is secretly beloved by the oblivious, let-them-eat-cake Queen (Joely Richardson). Somehow, this is supposed to help Jeanne’s case, but what ensues instead is a major scandal that undermines the monarchy.
Without prior knowledge of 18th century French court history, none of these machinations make much sense. Yet The Affair of the Necklace can still be enjoyed for the performances of the supporting cast, particularly Baker, Brody and Richardson as masterful manipulators who usually keep themselves above the fray. They’re tripped up by a truly odd heroine, a self-righteous progressive conservative who is woefully out of step with her revolutionary times.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.