“It’s remarkable how quickly you’ve become tiresome,” the Countess de la Motte (Hilary Swank) says with a dismissive smile to the young fop Retaux de Vilette (Simon Baker) early on in Charles Shyer’s opulent period piece about a scandal that shook the French court in the mid-1780s. It’s a line that before too long a viewer might find himself repeating in the direction of the screen. “The Affair of the Necklace” turns out to be a coffee-table movie–one of those films that’s lavishly appointed and lovingly shot, but so static and amateurishly acted that it feels like an overproduced high-school pageant. It’s “Barry Lyndon” without the genius.
John Sweet’s script is based on the famous pre-revolutionary incident in which a cabal of schemers, led by a young woman intent on resuscitating the glory of her suppressed noble family name (Valois) and including her dissolute husband and social-climbing lover as well as the notorious charlatan Count Cagliostro, tricked Cardinal Louis de Rohan, primate of France, into standing as financial guarantor for a extraordinary diamond necklace, which he was led to believe he was procuring for Marie Antoinette. The cardinal, who was at odds with the queen, was persuaded that by serving as middle-man in the transaction, he could win Marie’s favor and, thereby, political preferment. Unfortunately for all concerned, the plot unraveled and led to a court case in which the cardinal was acquitted but the woman who had misled him convicted and punished. The real loser, however, was a person not a direct party to the affair–Marie Antoinette, for whom the imbroglio became an acute embarrassment, proving to an already disgruntled populace the extent of the extravagance and corruption within the royal court, and thereby contributing to the growth of the anti-monarchical feeling that eventually led to the toppling of Louis XVI and the establishment of the First Republic.
Theoretically this story could be fashioned into an enjoyable piece–something snide and biting along the lines of Stephen Frears’ delectably nasty “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988)–but neither Shyer nor Sweet seems to have the foggiest notion how to go about it. “The Affair of the Necklace” is stilted and musty, often beautiful to look at but dramatically inert; watching it is rather like strolling through an overstuffed museum exhibit in the company of a dry-as-dust, long-winded guide constantly chattering into your ear. It isn’t so much dramatized as laboriously recited through narration solemnly intoned by one of the chief characters (Breteuil, house minister of Versailles) from the perspective of many years later; the poor fellow is constantly interrupting the action to tell us who’s who, what’s happening and what the ramifications are, usually in turns of phrase that reek of unsuccessful attempts at sophisticated humor. Whenever he falls mercifully silent and gives way to conversation among the characters, we’re subjected to dialogue so florid and archly ridiculous that we immediate yearn for him to start up again. It’s a no-win situation for the audience.
It would help a bit, of course, if the script were played with any degree of conviction, but alas, that is not to be; most of the cast prove singularly inept at mouthing the lines of purple prose Sweet serves up for them–and, in fact, don’t even wear their period garb persuasively. The exceptions are Jonathan Pryce, who, as Rohan, adopts once again the pose of silkily sinister arrogance that he’s used before to good effect (and appears to enjoy flouncing about in his billowing cardinal’s robes) and Brian Cox, who brings a certain grave dignity to Breteuil. But everyone else is pretty much a disaster. As the scheming countess, Hilary Swank seems utterly at a loss; most of the time she stands around looking as though she’s just been hit in the head with a mallet and remains uncertain of where she might be. As her dishonest spouse-of-convenience, the very contemporary-seeming Adrien Brody is about as persuasive as John Turturro might be in eighteenth-century garb (which is to say not at all), while Simon Baker is a callow cipher as her business partner and lover. Joely Richardson resembles an out-of-place Vegas showgirl as Marie Antoinette. But the funniest performance is probably turned in by Christopher Walken as the duplicitous Cagliostro; his customarily odd intonations, along with the absurd pantaloons he’s forced to wear, make him a walking, talking implausibility.
The only way one can glean some entertainment from this elaborate misfire is by ignoring the plot and performances utterly and simply admiring the locations in France and the Czech Republic, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ashley Rowe, and the eye-catching sets and costumes provided by a small army of European craftsman. You might also enjoy trying to identify the various snippets of seventeenth and eighteenth-century music stitched together by David Newman in a pastiche of a background score. Apart from that, however, “The Affair of the Necklace” will prove an almost complete bore to anyone without an overwhelming fascination for gleaming chandeliers, powdered wigs, lush gardens and silk bustles. It reminds one of nothing more than a really bad history lecture–profusely illustrated, of course.