Cinema Signal:

. "The Affair of the Necklace"

Hilary Swank, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world for my money, proved her dedication to her chosen art in her selfless roll of Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry" and deserves having her feet set in cement outside Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese theatre for that contribution (for which she won 1999's Best Actress Oscar). Film history is likely to reward her with even more lasting testimony to a memorable role. Now, her classy and refined good looks are employed in as wide a departure from deprived Nebraska as it's possible to go, to the Court of Versailles, the nobility of 18th century France, the world of plumed hats and velvet collars, and a true story about the scandal that brought down a monarchy.

She plays Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a woman who, as a child in 1767, loses her father, a critic of the royal court, to execution by King Louis XV's soldiers because he is considered to be a danger to the crown. In the tragedy of this was the loss to Jeanne of any claim to her nobility, so crushing is the sentence upon the house of Valois. Trouble is, this woman is not given to accepting a stoic existence and she plain wants her title back. Physical charm and beauty is power, and has been in every age, and it takes her far, indeed, on her quest.

By 1786 she has married Count Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody), a low-level nobleman, in order to gain some sort of title. Soon, she is accepting instruction on the intricacies of court politics and intrigue by a helpful Retaux de Villette (Simon Baker), a gigolo who becomes her confidant. At the same time, Marie Antoinette, the queen (Joely Richardson) has been shown a 2,800 carat, 647 diamond necklace that the jewelers wish to sell her. Knowing that no one else could afford it and as a ploy to eventually get it, she refuses it.

Jeanne now seeks out the powerful and cunning cardinal, religious advisor to the court, for the help he can afford her in her quest for the return and due recognition of her family name, Valois. She convinces him that there might be something of interest for him in that she can help regain the friendship he once had from the queen who now holds him in low contempt for previous failures. Jeanne promises to employ her clandestine contact with the queen to effect a reconciliation.

But before she can put her plan to work she must pass Count Cagliostro's (Christopher Walken) psychic lie detection. Once she does, recognizing an opportunist when she sees one, she makes an ally of the influential Cagliostro while she fabricates a series of letters "from the queen" which she herself composes, supposedly playing go between and risking exposure by the oily Baron de Breteuil (Brian Cox) advisor and enforcer for the crown. The exchanges culminates in an actual face-to-face encounter with a queen imposter shrouded in hood and shadows.

The cardinal buys it in a way that the audience cannot. We're to believe that the ensuing scandal over Jeanne's deceit and the destiny of the necklace is somehow intertwined in the eventual downfall of this royal house. Rather, it comes off as pretentious frippery and lace masquerading as historical significance. Its ability to hold you with any kind of emotional interest or scholarly respect is about on a par with the average comic strip. A well drawn one, that is, with the highest achievements in film craftsmanship, chiefly costume design by Milena Canonero ("Barry Lyndon", "Out of Africa", no less), production design (Alex McDowell and his team of art directors) and cinematography (Ashley Rowe), all of which is stylistically superior and should be on top 5 lists this year.

What shouldn't be considered on any "top" list, sadly, are script, direction and Hilary Swank all of which are unconvincing. Exquisite as she is, as loved as she is by the lens and the light, Swank's level of acting is a squeek out of workshop. Out of her depth in the general company and in the situation, she balances captivating physical self confidence with a rather stiff, unshaded and tentative performance. Her comfort level with the words and the emotions brings it all down. She should watch Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth" 100 times to get a handle on what she needs to absorb before tackling her next costume drama... or lead role, for that matter.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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