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Good acting benefits true story

Review: 'Affair of the Necklace' is a gem

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- If the new film "The Affair Of The Necklace" proves anything, it's that political scandals involving sex, money and power weren't invented in Washington. More than 200 years ago, a messy scandal in the French royal court helped bring down King Louis XVI and his arrogant queen, Marie Antoinette, and begin the French Revolution. This movie is loosely based on that story.

Writer/director/producer Charles Shyer is known for such lightweight comedies as "Baby Boom" (1987) and "Father of the Bride" (1991), but he's made a major change with this lavish period piece, shot in Prague on a modest $30 million budget.

He also took somewhat of a chance with Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the leading role. Her graphic portrayal of Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) gave no hint as to whether or not she could pull off a 18th-century drama complete with feathered hats and tight corsets. She can.

Treacherous social waters

Swank plays Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, whose family directly descended from King Henry II of France. But her parents fell out of favor with the royal family, and died leaving Jeanne an orphan without her title. The beautiful young woman is left with nothing except a tattered genealogical chart proving her noble origins.

'Affair of the Necklace' stars Hilary Swank and Christopher Walken

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When she comes of age she marries a dubious count, Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody). This husband in name only opens the door to the French court, where she hopes to bring her case for reinstatement into royalty to the attention of the Queen (Joely Richardson). She soon finds that her naive attempts at navigating the the treacherous social waters at Versailles are in vain.

Enter a rogue, gigolo and forger named Retaux de Villete (Simon Baker, Australia's latest hunk). He introduces her to the ins and outs of the highly volatile court, but cannot help her with her ultimate quest.

She needs money, and lots of it, to buy back her birthright. Marilyn Monroe wasn't the first to discover that diamonds are a girl's best friend, and Jeanne's plan revolves around a 2,800-carat, 647-diamond necklace, a pile of rocks that would make even Elizabeth Taylor blanch. The royal jeweler had made the gaudy glitterfest for the mistress of King Louis XV, but upon his death she was banished from the court, and the jeweler is now about to go bankrupt, since the current queen doesn't want it.

Tricks of the court

Jeanne convinces the desperate jeweler that she is a confidant of the queen, and launches an outrageous and deadly game by convincing the powerful Cardinal Louis de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce) that she has the queen's ear. The cardinal wants to be named prime minister, but Antoinette hates him.

Jeanne falsely convinces him that the queen wants the necklace, but is afraid the people will be outraged by the extravagance. So the plan is for the cardinal to buy the necklace for the queen; she will discreetly pay him back at a later date, and he will then be named prime minister.

However, it's all a lie: Jeanne plans on keeping the necklace, breaking it apart, and selling the individual gems. She also hopes the cardinal will be too embarrassed to make a fuss.

She's wrong. The case is brought to a sensational trial which clears the cardinal, embarrasses the queen -- bringing the revolution even closer -- and everyone else involved actually gets a book deal out of the scandal. If it all didn't take place in the 18th century, the only thing missing would be a teary-eyed confession on a Barbara Walter's TV special.

Great performances

Hilary Swank does not immediately come to mind when one is thinking of making a period movie. Her angular looks are very contemporary and seem to be at odds with opulent gowns and huge hairdos, but her Oscar was no accident and she pulls off this leading role with aplomb.

Pryce, as usual, is priceless as the greedy cardinal, and Christopher Walken is brilliant as a royal hanger-on who pretends to foresee the future and is enlisted into Jeanne's plan.

Baker was introduced to American audiences when he played an actor caught in a sex scandal in "L.A. Confidential" (1997). He's perhaps now best known for his role on the new TV series "The Guardian," which airs on CBS. This is his most high-profile film role to date, and he's quite good as the shallow youth who uses his looks and charm to make his way in the world.

The fact that this film is based on an actual event gives the story added weight it wouldn't otherwise have. It's fascinating to see all the intrigue unfold as real history overtakes the characters and their shabby schemes.

"The Affair Of The Necklace" isn't necessarily perfect -- like many jewels, it has its flaws. But overall it's beautifully acted and mounted -- and the result is a gem of a movie.

"The Affair Of The Necklace" opens nationwide on Friday, November 30.


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