Dir. Charles Shyer. US 2001. 117mins.

Much of the dramatic juice and historical intrigue has been drained out of The Affair Of The Necklace, an old-fashioned costume drama that suffers from being stiff, stuffy and banal. In her first major role after a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for Boys Don't Cry, Hilary Swank is miscast as the real-life Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a woman who dedicated her life to regaining her family's honour after they were disenfranchised by the Royal Court just prior to the French Revolution. Charles Shyer, better known for his frivolous comedies (Baby Boom and the 1991 version of The Father Of The Bride) proves that he is absolutely the wrong director for rendering a lively account of a scandalous affair that almost brought down the French monarchy. Bleak commercial prospects await this Warner release, which is afflicted with an unappetising title, and is likely to be dismissed by most critics as a rambling, archaic period drama that even fails to exploit its lurid tabloid-like gossip. The film has basically one week to play the arthouse circuit before disappearing from its home market in the US as a result of competition from the holiday season's top guns.

Although virtually unknown in America, the 18th-century scandal known as L'Affaire Du Collier has long been infamous throughout Europe and particularly in France. Indeed, Napoleon is known to have said that the three factors that caused the French Revolution were the military defeat at Rossbach during the Seven Year's War, the lack of intervention in the Dutch Netherlands and the Affair of the Necklace. Historians, too, have attributed a significant role to what they described as Europe's most spectacular string of jewels, which led to a curious and sensational liaison that revolved around a woman of denied nobility and the Royal Family itself.

The story is framed as a court trial, in which a young woman, Jeanne de la Motte-Valois (Swank) is about to hear the verdict on her disgraceful behaviour. After this brief prologue, a flashback to 1767 introduces Jeanne as a little girl who is forced to witness the invasion and burning of her parents' estate. Soon after she is tragically orphaned, all along clinging to her only inheritance and invaluable evidence: a tattered chart that proves her noble origins.

Jumping ahead to 1784, the story finds Jeanne as an intriguingly beautiful woman, determined to use every resource in her possession to exonerate her family's name. It was public knowledge that, to gain access to the Royal Court, Jeanne married a dubiously-titled count, Nicolas de la Motte (Brody), who served as a philandering husband of convenience. Once placed within the great palace's walls, Jeanne enlisted the tutelage of a court rogue, a handsome gigolo named Retaux de Villette (Baker), who introduced her to its invidious cast of characters and taught her the ins and outs of court life. Despite her aggressive efforts, Jeanne was coldly ignored, which forced her to scheme a clever, if dangerous game: to get hold of a 2,800 carat, 647-diamond necklace so costly that no other Royal Court on the Continent could afford to purchase it.

The central drama revolves around a quintet of characters that includes, in addition to Jeanne and Retaux, Louis de Rohan (Pryce), the morally dubious French Cardinal who desperately desired to be Prime Minister and would do anything to achieve it; Queen Marie Antoinette (Richardson), who had come to despise the Cardinal and consistently blocked his path; and Count Cagliostro (Walken), a Svengali whose prognostications were taken as gospel by the Cardinal.

In one of many indolently staged climaxes, Jeanne, using her manipulative wit and alluring charm, persuades the Cardinal that the Queen not only wishes to reconcile with him but is also willing to front the money for the luxurious necklace. The scheme needs to be executed in the utmost secrecy from a French populace which had increasingly become angered by the queen's greedy conduct and various excesses.

Inexperienced writer John Sweet works hard to invest the old tale with immediacy, perhaps wishing to suggest that the intrigues of the rich and powerful of yesteryear's high society France could be found today in the corridors of the White House and other high-powered sites in Washington DC. Straining to imbue the historical figure with a more contemporary meaning, Jeanne is described as a honest woman, who acted by dictates of her heart and whose sole motivation was not wealth, but rather a quest for honour denied to her and her parents.

Much in the manner of American screen protagonists who stress the importance of personal code of honour, Jeanne comes across as a prototypical modern woman who obsessively sets out to regain her honour and heritage by taking her rightful place at the Royal Court of Versailles. Her impetus, which is repeatedly stated in dialogue and in voice-overs, becomes the story's central motif. As she herself says: "I wish to restore the vision of home denied me, the sense of place I have never known."

Although the film is based on extensive research, Shyers' treatment is disappointingly long-winded, failing to find a dynamically engaging way to present the myriad of historical details to modern audiences viewers. After all, the tumultuous scandal not only had explosive, far-reaching effects on the dismantling of the French aristocracy (and rigid class system) and the sparking of undeniable revolutionary fervour, but its "basic facts" have remained controversial or undetermined. Indeed, questions still abound as to who really masterminded the elaborate, consequential plot. At the court trial, which concludes the film, Jeanne is exiled to England and never allowed to return to France; a title card reveals that she died in an English hotel.

By necessity, screenwriter Sweet had to use his imagination to fill in the many blanks and come up with his own version of the events. However, it does not help that the characters can only express themselves in ordinary human speech at rare intervals. Indeed, the banter is vastly uneven, and is neither historically accurate nor convincingly modern. In recent successful period dramas, such as Andrzej Wajda's Danton or Eric Rohmer's The Lady And The Duke, the dialogue reflected the zeitgeist, and speech was treated as the essence of dramatic action: by contrast a good deal of the talk in Affair Of The Necklace is haughty and stilted. And the voice-overs, instead of illuminating or commenting on the action, mainly serve as links between the various events, most of which are illustrated with sumptuous, postcard-like imagery.

Things are also made worse by the contemporaneous image of most of the leading actors, and primarily Swank. This is the third consecutive role, after the gender-bending Boys Don't Cry and psychological thriller The Gift, in which Swank plays a victimised or abused woman. And while she excelled in the former and barely acquitted herself honourably in the latter, here her performance is constrained by the period, the tedious and pretentious lines she is asked to deliver and even the elaborate garb she has to wear. On the basis of her latest performance, it is still hard to predict whether Swank is a major talent to watch or an actress who benefited from a perfect match between part and personality in her prize-winning role.

The production's most impressive aspect is the French Revolution settings (the film was shot in Prague) and costumes, which come to vivid life courtesy of Alex McDowell