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Aristocrats Don't Cry: Hilary Swank plots to recover her family's fortune in 'The Affair of The Necklace.'

Pulling Swank

Period drama 'Affair of the Necklace' is an albatross around Hilary Swank's neck

By Chris Baker

HILARY SWANK has chosen to follow her Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don't Cry with another portrayal of a real person: the Countess Jeanne de la Motte Valois. Countess de la Motte was a disinherited noblewoman who achieved infamy on the eve of the French Revolution. Having convinced her lover Cardinal Rohan that she was a confidant of Queen Marie Antoinette, the countess persuaded the cardinal to purchase an extremely expensive diamond necklace on the queen's behalf. The necklace was then sold by the countess and her co-conspirators, who continued to string along the cardinal. When the plot was exposed, a scandalous trial ensued.

This story had the potential to yield a great role, and Swank was more than up to the task. But the filmmakers are absolutely incapable of portraying the historical milieu or utilizing Swank's talent. Director Charles Shyer is better known for contemporary fare like I Love Trouble and Father of the Bride. The script is by John Sweet, whose teleplays (like The Great Elephant Escape) have not prepared him for this sort of sweeping historical melodrama. It's agony just listening to the movie, and not because of the intrusive score. In the time-honored fashion of historical movies set in foreign countries, the Americans try to sound slightly English, and the British actors try to sound slightly American, which necessitates a lot of overenunciating and overdubbing.

The dense plotting and tangled motivations call for a surfeit of explication. There is a framing device in a courtroom. Subtitles identify each new location. There is also a narrator (Brian Cox, in a totally thankless role). The other characters all spend so much time pointing out and introducing and explaining and synopsizing that they might as well speak directly to the audience like the historians in a Ken Burns documentary.

The Affair of the Necklace presents a treacly, storybook version of history--the villains are all two-dimensional, and our heroine is unblemished even as she extorts and forges and plots. She takes no pleasure in her crimes, and neither do we. Whenever the countess schemes, there's a flashback to her traumatic childhood, in case we might have forgotten that she's merely a victim of circumstance. We are also treated to recurring images of chubby angels that seem to symbolize lost innocence or something. In the end, the film wants us to think that the Countess de la Motte was a martyred victim of a repressive society, just like Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry. The filmmakers also expect us to see her self-serving crime as a conscious blow against the French monarchy.

The supporting cast does what it can. Jonathan Pryce has a lot of fun as the debauched cardinal. With his dazed expression and puffy features, Simon Shackleton is a perfect Louis XVI. Christopher Walken is suitably creepy as the fortune-teller Count Cagliostro. The standout performance is Joely Richardson's haughty and imperious Marie Antoinette. Richardson's performance is so vivid and real that it's that much more appalling when she's decapitated.

The Affair of the Necklace (R; 120 min.), directed by Charles Shyer, written by John Sweet, photographed by Ashley Rowe and starring Hilary Swank and Jonathan Pryce, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz

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From the November 28-December 5, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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