Jeanne de la Motte Valois (Hillary Swank) is the last to bear the Valois name: in the tumultuous years preceding the French Revolution, her father's populist politics led him afoul of the king, so that he lost his life and his family lost their heritage, the Valois estates. But more even than the return of the estates, Jeanne craves a return to honor for the Valois name. Feeling that she might be able to petition Marie Antoinette to help, Jeanne hovers at the edges of the court at Versailles, where disappointment eventually lead her into deeper and deeper plots and intrigues involving Antoinette herself along with Cardinal Rohan (Jonathan Pryce).
The Affair of the Necklace tells the story of a scam, and like all such stories, the fun is in the elaboration (and unraveling) of the characters' plans. It makes it all the more interesting that the story is based on historical fact, which just goes to show that human nature hasn't changed much in a few hundred years; there will always be victims willing to have the wool drawn over their eyes by clever scamsters.
The story is told with an extensive voiceover narration from a character who is at first unknown to the viewer, but who reveals himself later in the story. It's a bit unusual to have narration used quite as extensively in a film as it's used in The Affair of the Necklace, but it ends up working quite well, as it's used consistently. The film takes on the qualities of a tale told (and re-told) to friends sitting around the fireplace, wanting to hear once again the convoluted story of "l'affaire du colier" and how it helped bring about the French Revolution. Director Shyer has clearly made an effort in present the events of the film, particularly the central scam, so that the viewer will always be able to follow what's happening. The voiceover explanation is not always necessary, but it fits the tone of the film, and I'd certainly rather have the story err on the side of more, rather than less, clarity of plot. All in all, the story is quite entertaining, and kept me interested from beginning to end to see how it would all unfold.
The best performances come from the supporting characters. Jonathan Pryce does an excellent job as the Cardinal Rohan; Simon Baker and Adrian Brody are also very convincing in their roles as the men in Jeanne's life. Hillary Swank, as Jeanne, is the weakest link in the film. Somehow she never quite seems to fit the role that she's playing, alternating between a conniving trickster, a lonely, desperate woman, and a proud aristocrat, without ever really convincing the audience that the character of Jeanne incorporates all of these characteristics into one person. The character itself, as presented in the film, is also never particularly sympathetic; one can be interested in her fate, but not particularly sorry for her, given that she is primarily driven by greed throughout the story.
Visually, The Affair of the Necklace is a treat. Set in the lavish, decadent royal court of Louis XIV, the film goes all out in costumes and sets that convey the mood of the era. From the interior of the court to the streets of Paris, from the cardinal's rooms to a decadent boat ride, the cinematography of each scene is lush and elegant.
Warner has presented The Affair of the Necklace in a beautiful transfer. The anamorphically-enhanced 2.35:1 image is impeccably clean, with colors that are rich, warm, and vivid, and skin tones are natural, at various light levels. There's essentially no edge enhancement visible in the image, which is beautifully crisp and clear, without any noise or print flaws. The only slight flaw in the presentation is that contrast is sometimes a little weak in the darker scenes, though it is still perfectly satisfactory on that count. For a film with such a visual focus as The Affair of the Necklace, it's particularly enjoyable to get a transfer of this quality.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack of The Affair of the Necklace produces an immersive, absorbing atmosphere for the film. The track makes outstanding use of the side channels to create a true surround effect in many of the film's scenes, with sharply localized sound used very effectively on many occasions. The dialogue is clean and clear, with environmental effects and music integrated well into the overall soundtrack.
The Affair of the Necklace comes with a reasonable complement of special features. We get a look behind the scenes in two fifteen-minute featurettes. "The Making of a Scandal" is a mainly promotional-style piece with nothing of particular interest to offer, while "Designing Affair" is a mildly interesting a look at the costume and production design of the film.
Five deleted scenes are included, with optional commentary from director Charles Shyer; the DVD also includes a full-length audio commentary track for the film from Shyer. Last but not least are a trailer, filmographies, and a short "gag reel" of outtakes, some of which are genuinely quite funny.
The Affair of the Necklace is a curious hybrid of a film. It's a drama, yet it has a liberal dose of humor; in many ways, it's a very funny film, though it never explicitly goes for the laugh (which is undoubtedly how it manages to pull off the mix of drama and humor). It's a historical film, yet it has a distinctly modern sensibility; certainly the central plot of the scam is one that we generally associate more with modern times than with the eighteenth century. What it amounts to is that The Affair of the Necklace doesn't quite feel like a typical period piece, which is no bad thing: it has its own distinct personality, one that I found to be highly entertaining.