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'Affair of the Necklace, The'

Scheming heroine doesn't seem up to the intrigue in 'Necklace'

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Hilary Swank was more convincing as a young man in "Boys Don't Cry" than she is as a French countess in "The Affair of the Necklace," now at Star City in Bridgeville. But Swank, who deservedly won an Oscar for her gender-bending role, is not entirely to blame.

'The Affair Of The Necklace'

RATING: R for some sexuality.

STARRING: Hilary Swank, Simon Baker, Jonathan Pryce, Joely Richardson.

DIRECTOR: Charles Shyer.

WEB SITE: affairofthenecklace



Director Charles Shyer, whose resume consists entirely of forgettable comedies ("I Love Trouble," the "Father of the Bride" remakes), treats this episode -- based on true events that took place in 1785, four years before the French Revolution -- as so much romance-novel melodrama.

The costumes matter more than the politics, the conniving heroine has the purest of motives and has to keep defending her virtue even though she's a married woman (well, there is that one frolic interruptus midway through the movie) and most accounts I can find of the actual incident call her an adventuress.

Swank plays the Countess Jeanne de la Motte-Valois. In the film, she seeks to have her birthright restored. She was orphaned as a child when the king's troops sacked and confiscated the family estate because her father was sympathetic to the people's grievances against the throne.

She has no influence at the royal court at Versailles. But with the help of the schemer Retaux de Villette (Simon Baker), she takes advantage of the Cardinal de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce) and his thirst for power.

Although Rohan is out of favor with Queen Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson), Jeanne convinces him that her majesty wants Rohan to act as go-between in the purchase of a fabulous diamond necklace. She hopes to blackmail Rohan and use the money to regain her estate, but it's a dangerous game.

Someone comments at one point about how Jeanne learned early on to hide her emotions, but it couldn't be further from the truth. Swank's face reveals every shock, every disappointment, every fear, every satisfaction that Jeanne feels. With her natural, youthful looks, her slight build (push-up bodice notwithstanding) and her coif of black curls, she simply doesn't fit as a regular at Versailles, where everyone else is noble in name only.

That damned innocence is the most galling thing about Jeanne. Even as an adult, she's still that child we see in a swing at the beginning of the movie, beaming at her father. No one who could pull off this scam, even with right motives, could be that clean.

Maybe that's why I keep looking at Baker and seeing a boyish face that reminds me of Matthew Broderick. Maybe that's why Marie Antoinette comes off as the snooty president of a sorority. Pryce's Rohan seems to be the only adult here, and he's a lecher who's played for a fool.

Shyer and director John Sweet also insist on having a narrator fill in the gaps in the narrative, saving them the trouble of dramatizing the things that might have provided a more forceful and intriguing tale. Instead, "The Affair of the Necklace" is all paste.

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