Film review: Jefferson in Paris

Published: Tuesday, April 25 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

"Jefferson in Paris" is the latest effort from the Oscar-winning team of producer Ismael Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day"). But it's hardly up to expectations.

Abandoning England's repressed class distinctions for a look at a controversial subject of American history, the Merchant-Ivory team explores a period in the life of our third president, Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte), when he was ambassador to France (1784-89).

Since the film opens with the charge that Jefferson had children by his slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) and then unfolds in flashback, it would be logical to assume this is what the movie is about. But in fact, this is more of a subplot that appears very late in the film and is never sufficiently addressed, much less wrapped up.

Instead, the film drags the audience through all kinds of intricate detail about Jefferson's dealings with the French government, albeit in a frustratingly vague manner, and seems to care more about his unfulfilled love for Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the in-name-only wife of a foppish French artist (Simon Callow), and his distant relationship with his daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he places in a convent.

There are some interesting developments in the latter stories. It seems Jefferson promised his wife on her deathbed he would never remarry, which compromises his desire to woo Maria. And though he is promised that his Protestant daughter will not be indoctrinated by her Catholic surroundings, he is eventually disappointed. But neither is satisfactorily explored.

Eventually, when Jefferson does begin an affair with his slave, the film begins to come to life for a bit - thanks largely to Newton's excellent performance - but it's too little too late.

Aside from Newton, the cast seems rather lackluster, and as Jefferson, Nolte is incredibly uncomfortable. And the picture seems to drag on forever (it is roughly 21/2 hours in length).

There is, as you would expect, a remarkable amount of attention to period detail, and the costumes and sets are fascinating from start to finish. But none of this can compensate for the bland story.

There is also a question of historical accuracy, since there is some debate as to whether Jefferson ever really did have an affair with Sally, much less children by her. In that regard, this amounts to little more than just another sleazy celebrity biography.

"Jefferson in Paris" is rated PG-13. There is some vulgarity and violence, and the rating is primarily for a brief, unnecessary sexually explicit puppet show.

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