French history is reduced to the level of American tabloid-style gossip in "The Affair of the Necklace," a staggeringly misguided stab at period filmmaking. Banal at best and laughable at worst, without major star names or reviews to propel it, this Warner Bros. release will be the poor cousin to "Harry Potter" and "Ocean's Eleven."

French history is reduced to the level of American tabloid-style gossip in “The Affair of the Necklace,” a staggeringly misguided stab at making the past come alive by people who have absolutely no feel for period filmmaking. Banal at best and laughable at worst, pic seems like it was inspired by the Monica Lewinsky scandal as it illustrates, rather than explores, an intriguing sideshow to the French Revolution that involved treachery, corruption and blackmail in the highest royal circles. Without major star names or reviews to propel it, this Warner Bros. release will be the poor cousin to “Harry Potter” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” among the studio’s other holiday attractions.

The historical story behind tyro scripter John Sweet’s inventions is quite interesting, and has understandably always fascinated the French. Frustrated in her attempts to to reclaim her name and property through official channels, an orphaned aristocratic woman named Jeanne de la Motte-Valois hatched an elaborate scheme by which she induced the powerful Cardinal Louis de Rohan to purchase a fabulous diamond necklace by suggesting that she could intervene with Marie Antoinette to help make him prime minister.

Devoted to orgies and young girls when he wasn’t saying mass or otherwise tending to his flock, the cardinal was lured into Jeanne’s trap by her beauty and was fooled even through a prolonged correspondence in which Jeanne sent him forged letters he believed to be from the queen. When the ruse was exposed, “l’affaire du collier” produced an elaborate trial in 1786 that was embarrassing for some and ruinous for others.

Unfortunately, Sweet and director Charles Shyer are at a complete loss as to how to tell the tale. Pages of narration fill in the necessary exposition, beginning with Jeanne’s (Hilary Swank) time as a fringe member of Versailles society and her taking up with a conceited gigolo, Retaux de Vilette (Simon Baker), who can help promote her interests. Then there’s her errant husband Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody), who seems mildly annoyed at his wife’s dalliances before joining the conspiracy himself.

For starters, pic lacks any point of view about Jeanne’s criminal activities other than to take the conspicuously modern and American position of admiring her, despite her faults, for her self-empowerment, for wanting to right the wrongs done to her and then doing something about it. Furthermore, there is no meaningful delineation of the levels of power in French society at the time, the intricacy of relationships, status and decorum, the manner of address and so on.

And with the partial exception of Jonathan Pryce’s prideful but vulnerable Rohan and Joely Richardson’s witty Marie Antoinette, there is little credibility in the performances, least of all in Swank’s Jeanne. After scoring an Oscar for her splendid work in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank took her new opportunities to move in entirely the opposite direction in a period piece in which she could wear fabulous costumes and flounce around in melodramatic distress.

The truth is, however, that many modern actresses — Winona Ryder comes immediately to mind — simply aren’t convincing in pre-20th century roles, and by the evidence here, Swank is one of them. She seems hamstrung by the demands of matching the “proper” diction of her mostly British co-stars, and evidently didn’t get much help from Shyer in figuring out how to convey seductiveness onscreen or in creating a characterization of any nuance or complexity. After her big splash, this reps a washout.

The only attraction here is decorative, particularly in the realm of Milena Canonero’s enormously splashy costumes and Alex McDowell’s sumptuous production design. Shot in France and the Czech Republic, pic is routine in all other departments, and David Newman’s score even presumes to lift a memorable passage straight from Handel’s “Sarabande,” famously used in “Barry Lyndon.”

The Affair of the Necklace

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an Alcon Entertainment presentation. Produced by Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Charles Shyer, Redmond Morris. Co-producers, Kira Davis, Stacey Attanasio. Directed by Charles Shyer. Screenplay, John Sweet.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Ashley Rowe; editor, David Moritz; music, David Newman; production designer, Alex McDowell; supervising art director, Jean-Michel Hugon; art directors, Jean-Michel Ducourty, Martin Kurel (Prague); set decorator, Philippe Turlure; costume designer, Milena Canonero; sound, Tony Dawe; supervising sound editors, Mike Wilhoit, Kelly Oxford; sound designer, Tony Lamberti; associate producer, Nigel Goldsack; assistant director, Mishka Cheyko; second unit camera, Milan Chadima; stunt coordinator, Paul Jennings; casting, Gail Stevens (U.K.), Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden, Mark Bennett. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Oct. 30, 2001. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Jeanne St. Remy de Valois - Hilary Swank Cardinal Louis de Rohan - Jonathan Pryce Retaux de Vilette - Simon Baker Nicolas De La Motte - Adrien Brody Minister Breteuil - Brian Cox Marie Antoinette - Joely Richardson Cagliostro - Christopher Walken Monsieur Bohmer - Paul Brooke Monsieur Bassenge - Peter Eyre Minister of Titles - Simon Kunz Young Jeanne - Hayden Panettiere

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