Jefferson In Paris

1995, Movie, PG-13, 144 mins


This Merchant-Ivory production is an upscale tabloid expose of the skeletons in the famous president's closet that dishes the dirt--the Sally Hemings affair and Jefferson's possible mulatto children--as if it were fact instead of hotly debated supposition. The Great Man's personality remains a mystery in this "Masterpiece Theatre" version of a celebrity roast.

1784. As America settles into hard-won democracy, founding father Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte) accepts the post of ambassador to France. Grieving for his beloved wife, he encourages his clinging daughter Patsy's (Gwyneth Paltrow's) emotional dependency and treats her as a surrogate spouse and hostess. Although he presents himself as a moral arbiter to the court of Louis XVI, Jefferson engages in an adulterous flirtation with the artistic Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) and stands by passively as callous Queen Marie Antoinette depletes the treasury with her frivolous spending. As one of the shapers of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson proclaims the equality of all men. Yet he employs James Hemings (Seth Gilliam), a slave inherited from his wife's family, to run his household in France. The arrival of James's teenage sister Sally (Thandie Newton)--who is also the half-sister of Jefferson's late wife--creates a storm in the Jefferson household.

While possessive Patsy turns a blind eye to her father's affair with Maria, his dalliance with Sally outrages her. She confides in Maria, who bids Jefferson adieu and returns to her effete husband (Simon Callow). The starving French rebel, tumbling the Ancient Regime, and Jefferson's appointment to France winds down. With his daughter and slave-mistress in tow, Jefferson returns to his upcoming glory years as valued statesman and tormented private citizen in America.

JEFFERSON IN PARIS is a rich confection indeed, filled with tidbits about fashion, customs, art, and commerce in 18th-century France and America. But like a meal consisting of nothing but petits-fours, this lavish biopic is too much dessert and not enough main course. The Merchant-Ivory team (which includes screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) drops incredibly intricate doilies over the architecture of history, and as beautiful as their budget-blowing visualizations are, they don't inspire debate, explain Jefferson's stature abroad or expand the viewer's understanding of the personal contradictions that define his character.

Except for the fact that the figures move, we might as well be exploring a wax museum at Monticello or Versailles. The sets, costumes and bric-a-brac are spellbindingly photographed, but the glimpses of Jefferson's life hardly add up to a full-fleshed portrait of a complex and deeply paradoxical man. Overrated star Nolte is hampered by a script in which insinuation takes precedence over insight, and while Jefferson's nobility and heroism come naturally to him, he never manages to suggest the presence of a vital man beneath the peruke. As for the remainder of the enormous cast, the idiosyncratic Paltrow is given too few scenes and the vapidly pretty Scacchi too many. Newton resembles an impressionable slave girl less than the young Lena Horne.

More appropriate to examining characters who suppress their external emotions but have rich interior lives, the Merchant-Ivory style is ill-suited to dealing with this man of action. The filmmakers turn a historical dazzler into a wet blanket; a man of infinite variety becomes, in their fussy hands, just another repressed American abroad. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations, adult situations, nudity.) leave a comment

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