Drollery And Decolletage

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Just before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were deposed by the French Revolution, a woman named Jeanne de la Motte-Valois engaged in a historically murky, slightly incomprehensible plot to peddle an elaborate and hugely expensive necklace to the Queen and keep the profits, even though she did not own the jewelry. When she was placed on trial for this crime, much about the decadence and indifference of the monarchy came out and helped swell revolutionary passions among the populace.

This much of The Affair of the Necklace is true, and it makes for a sumptuous movie. John Sweet's script supplies Jeanne (Hilary Swank) with a good motive for her crime: she is supposed to be a noblewoman who has lost her lands and family because they fell out of favor with the crown. It also places her in some amusingly bad company--a sexually voracious Cardinal (Jonathan Pryce), a courtier who is too clever by half (Simon Baker), a fake noble husband (Adrien Brody) and the mystic mountebank Cagliostro (Christopher Walken, who is, as always, deliciously weird). You may not be able to follow the overall arc of their scheming, but scene by scene they are a delightful crew, hissing away behind their cloaks and fans.

Swank seems a little lost among them. There's something slightly mousy in her presence; she seems more a victim than a mastermind, a character actress trying to command a star part. Her cohorts pip-pip merrily through the historical flummery, letting their accents do their acting for them. Swank doesn't quite get the joke. Charles Shyer, the director, does. He understands that we're mostly there for the drollery and the decolletage. Every movie season requires a handsomely appointed irrelevance, and his movie fills that need admirably.