Nobody seems to have settled on how best to tell this rattling good tale, based on real events in the tottering-toward-extermination court of King Louis XVI. The action-adventure hasn't the élan, bravado or Hollywood gloss of, for example, 1952's “Scaramouche,” starring deft dueler Stewart Granger and striking corseted beauties Eleanor Parker and Janet Leigh. The scheming, debauchery and skullduggery has none of the sharp witty truth of 1975's “Let Joy Reign Supreme,” Bertrand Taverniere's skewering of the indulgent opulence of pre-Revolutionary French court. The romantic intrigue has none of the lavish glamour of 1938's “Marie Antoinette,” starring Norma Shearer, Tyrone Power and a stunning collection of powdered wigs. The ironic caper aspects don't even have the excuse of being just plain silly fun--at least not intentionally--like the farcical spoof “Start the Revolution Without Me” (1970), starring Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder as two pairs of mixed-up identical twins ricocheting between the poor peasants and the over-endowed aristocracy.
But enough of what this movie isn't. It's oddly cast and ploddingly executed, despite the beauty of its appearance and the magnificent use made of both real French locales and stand-in buildings and sets from locations in Czechoslovakia. The complexities of the plot, an elaborate con which is still rumored to have been significant in causing Queen Marie Antoinette to lose her head, are never woven together into a suspenseful whole--the power-play successes and failures, the self-serving ambitions of all concerned, seem superficially attached.
Possibly much of the failure lies in the notion of trying to make Countess Jeanne de la Motte-Valois sympathetic--endless flashbacks to the murder of her father and the destruction of her family estate somehow don't tug at the heartstrings as they are obviously meant to. Even if she was a liberal thinker compared to the Bourbon court, she still wasn't part of the truly downtrodden. Swank has been given too little to play with to make any of her schemes seem justified. Surprising bland, though lovely in the fine period clothes, Swank is unable to prevent her presumably complex character from coming across as little more than a petulant social climber with a big chip on her shoulder about having her petition ignored by the Queen. When she heads off into the you-use-me-as-I-use-you back-stabbing world of genuine intrigue, blackmail and crime, she loses any hope of being seen as some sort of victim whose honor and rights have been abused.
Getting stuck to this little minx's petticoats are a nefarious bunch: Simon Baker looks the hero as the gigolo who falls for her, but, as her cuckolding cuckold husband, Adrien Brody actually has much more old-fashioned high style dash and appeal; Jonathan Pryce smirks his way though the role of the sex-crazed cardinal prepared to bend any principle to achieve the higher office he covets; Christopher Walken as a bogus mystic looks bogus; Joely Richardson manages to sidestep some of the clichés associated with Marie Antoinette, but still the script allows the hapless monarch little space to be depicted as anything more than vain and misguided; Brian Cox as a court factotum is landed with the explanatory role which also involves voice-over reminiscence. Coupled with the on-screen titles telling the audience at which chateau or palace a scene is taking place, this is a dead giveaway that what you are watching is a right old muddle. Starring Hilary Swank, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Baker, Adrien Brody, Brian Cox, Joely Richardson and Christopher Walken. Directed by Charles Shyer. Written by John Sweet. Produced by Charles Shyer, Redmond Morris, Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for some sexuality. Running time: 109 min