Swank dons long, curly tresses and a perma-pout as Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, an 18th-century Frenchwoman denied her noble title and seat within the Court of Versailles. Born to an aristocratic family that seems to spend all day being artsy and puttering in its gardens, young Jeanne (played by Hayden Panettiere) suffers the horror of seeing her ancestral home destroyed by the royal guard, her father (James Larkin) murdered, and her mother (Kristina Bill) left to die of heartbreak. Determined to avenge her family and reclaim her station, the adult Jeanne heads to Paris, brandishing her genealogy scroll.
Eight centuries of absolute monarchy have taken their toll on France, of course, so Jeanne finds herself caught in a festering imbalance, with the royalty getting richer and the poor getting royally pissed. Allowed entrance to the court via a marriage to shifty Count Nicolas de la Motte (Adrien Brody, mugging as usual), Jeanne contrives to enter the good graces of the ethereal, reality-impaired Marie Antoinette (Joely Richardson, stretching miles from Maybe Baby). "Being a woman," she assumes, "the queen will be more sympathetic to my situation." Buzz! Wrong! While her presence is duly noted, poor Jeanne is rejected as fetching but illegitimate riffraff.
At this point it becomes abundantly clear that what we are watching is essentially this year's Gladiator, wherein a disenfranchised protagonist struggles for personal justice against a bullying government, amidst lavish period detail. The game's a little different here, as Swank is not called upon to kick anyone's ass, but the message is the same. The overall aesthetic is similar, too, sort of a nouveau-classic approach involving saturated hues and archaic pastiches. Thankfully, unlike its celebrated Roman counterpart, this movie is comprehensibly edited.
As for the titular jewelry, composed of 647 diamonds (and crafted by a jeweler played by the wonderful English character actor Paul Brooke), the necklace becomes the film's -- and France's -- symbol of ultimate decadence, a treasure so dear that even the queen abstains from buying it. As Jeanne's various collusions help her wriggle into the confidence of the court, she learns to employ the treasure to reclaim her rights, eventually helping to catalyze national upheaval. The film's strongest suit is its atmosphere, which eventually squelches the initial apprehension that we're watching a polite Ken Russell film bankrolled by Hollywood, with an edgy executive breathing the words "mass market" down the director's collar before each take.
The project's helmer, Charles Shyer, known for the chronic niceness of his Father of the Bride movies, does indeed handle these proceedings a little lightly. Fortunately, he and production designer Alex McDowell (the Crow films, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) also strive to afford us incredibly sumptuous sets and locales, courtesy of Paris and Prague. Until we're offered a belated domestic release of the sensational Louis XIV drama The King Is Dancing (by Farinelli director Gerard Corbiau), this sleek American cousin holds its own.
The Affair of the Necklace improves as it rolls along, owing much to its eminently appealing cast. As a waggish gentleman with a penchant for much older women, Simon Baker (Ride With the Devil) fills his Rétaux de Villette with abundant verve, befriending Jeanne and instructing her in the manners -- and glaring lack thereof -- of the court. And then we've got the heavies, driving home the plot. The necklace serves as fine bait for attracting the interest of the fiendish Cardinal de Rohan (Jonathan Pryce), who attempts to exploit Jeanne, but gradually discovers that he's playing with fire. Attended by a mad psychic named Cagliostro (Christopher Walken in the year's best makeup), Rohan attempts to dissect Jeanne's spirit, as Jeanne plays upon his desire for prime ministership to lure him into a trap before the queen and all of France.
Affair's press package attempts to parallel it with contemporary scandals, given a young woman whose purposeful indiscretion rocks a nation. But Jeanne's actions directly influenced the French Revolution, whereas Monica Lewinsky accomplished nothing but pointless, temporary distraction. While this project's triumphs are often diluted with trifles, it certainly requires no such comparison to justify its existence.