THE AFFAIR OF THE NECKLACE
US, 2002,118 minutes, Colour.
Hillary Swank, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Baker, Christopher Walken, Adrien Brody, Brian Cox, Joely Richardson, Hayden Panettiere.
Directed by Charles Shyer.
For some reason before I knew anything about this film, the title brought to mind books by Baronness Orczy and France in the 18th century. And so it turned out to be. It's not the greatest of historical dramas. Rather, it belongs to what now seems an old-fashioned genre, the historical costume melodrama from the days of James Mason and Margaret Lockwood, Stewart Granger and Phyllis Calvert.
The comparison reminds us just how vigorous but sometimes absurd these flamboyant entertainments were. We did not really expect to learn any history, but we were plunged into the atmosphere of those times. If this is what we can expect from The Affair of the Necklace, then it is an entertaining tale. If we expect solemn history, that is not what it is offering.
It purports to be based on actual events, but like Marie Antoinette's handkerchief, which plays a significant role at one stage of the plot, it has been beautifully embroidered. Plot is the right word. What we see is a plot that is claimed to be one of the major factors in the French Revolution and the fall from grace of the Queen and her execution.
First of all, the sets, decor and costumes are lavish. Some of the exteriors of palaces were shot in France. After all, most of the action takes place at Versailles. However, most of the buildings and cobbled streets were filmed in Prague. There is plenty to satisfy the eye.
As regards the story, it is intriguing enough because it is a tale of intrigue. An impoverished noblewoman, Jeanne de Valois, with the help of a court gigolo and her profligate husband, persuade the Cardinal of France that he will return to the patronage of Maria Antoinette, who loathes him, will become Prime Minister and that he should guarantee the price of a fabulous necklace for the Queen.
The fraud both succeeds and fails.
Part of the film's failure is its taking itself too seriously most of the time when a little more levity is called for. The dialogue is too often that stilted rhetorical history-speak that is easy to parody. And the dialogue coaches needed to do a bit more work on the varied accents of the Americans in the cast.
Perhaps the main trouble is the casting of Hilary Swank who was so marvellous in her Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don't Cry. She is a strong but somewhat stolid presence. She makes us believe in her plot but she is not an alluring leading lady who can combine charm and shewdness like, for instance, Cate Blanchett. Joely Richardson is often more interesting as Marie Antoinette. However, Simon Baker is good as her charming courtier ally and Jonathan Pryce makes an irredeemable rakish, greedy, ambitious and superstitious Cardinal. Christopher Walken is the charlatan Cagliostro.
Brian Cox as the chief adviser, quietly sinister, does the voiceover commentary, pushing the plot along and making moral comments on Jeanne and her motives and the achieving of her deception and fraud.
Lavish, interesting but not compelling.
1. An 18th-century French adventure? Pre- Revolution? Of historical interest?
2. The re-creation of the period? Costumes, decor, locations, the world of the aristocracy, palaces and interiors, lavish style? The church and ecclesiastical background? Poorer and ordinary situations? The musical score?
3. Jeanne’s story, her life as an orphan, title, home, losing everything? Growing up, her bitterness, the plan for revenge? The relationship with Marie Antoinette? The clash? Her marriage to Nicholas, his personality, his place at court, double-dealing? Her relationship with Retaux, his life, gigolo? The getting together? Plot?
4. The design and creating of the necklace? Cost? Louis XV, commissioning it for his mistress, the decision to sell it? Approaching Marie Antoinette? Her refusal, the background story of its creation?
5. The Cardinal, an 18th-century ecclesiastic, his rank, his personality, his desire to be Prime Minister? His worldly nature? His consulting Cagliostro? The plot for the Cardinal to buy the necklace, the secrecy? Retaux as the agent? Nicholas as the seller? Jeanne recovering it?
6. The Cardinal and his panic, the invitation, the king and his advisers?, Trial, the accomplices? Not guilty?
7. Jeanne, the reverse of her fortune? The execution of Marie Antoinette? Jeanne at her going to England, her death and the violence? Suspicion that she was murdered?