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‘Jefferson in Paris’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1995

As a historical spectacle, James Ivory's "Jefferson in Paris" is nearly perfect in every detail. The costumes, the production design, the cinematography, the music, the wigs are all opulent and pleasing to the senses in the top-drawer manner that has become synonymous with Merchant-Ivory productions. The callous decadence of the ruling class, the intellectual buzzing of the salons and the atmosphere of impending revolt in the streets—these details about life in Paris during the 1780s are all conveyed with exceptional skill. But where, in all this, is Jefferson?

Played unconvincingly by Nick Nolte, the Jefferson shown here is more foundering father than founding father. Arriving in Paris in 1784 as the new American government's ambassador to France, the 41-year-old Jefferson eases gracefully into Parisian society, charming his hosts with his lilting Southern accent and his tall tales about the "red man" and the natural wonders of his homeland. At one party, he even has the full skeleton of a moose wheeled in to dazzle his guests.

In fact, about all Jefferson does in Paris is party—that and plant a garden of American corn and sweet potatoes on the grounds of his chateau. On occasion the film shows the inventor-architect-scholar and all-around Renaissance man huddling with Lafayette (Lambert Wilson) and the other prominent minds of his day, discussing the great American experiment in democracy, but somehow—maybe it's that damn wig—he always seems to be the least impressive figure in the room. On occasion—for example, when one intellectual notes that Mr. Jefferson's revolution is incomplete because it doesn't address the issue of slavery—he responds with mush-mouthed embarrassment, as if the idea had never occurred to him.

In reality, the issue of slavery is more central to the film than Jefferson's accomplishments during the final days of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Recounted in flashback by Madison Hemings (the predictably mellifluous James Earl Jones), the film gradually backs into its real subject—the relationship between the future president and Madison Hemings's mother, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), the striking young slave girl who came to Paris as a nurse for Jefferson's daughter, Polly (Estelle Eonnet).

Rumors about the relationship have been a part of the Jefferson biography for so long that they could scarcely be considered revelatory. Yet by casting speculation as established fact, Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala unveil this supposed contradiction in the great man's life as if they were outing him. At the same time, though, the filmmakers seem to want to have their hero and dis him too. Though they point to the relationship—which supposedly resulted in six offspring, all born into slavery—as proof that, indeed, the gods have feet of clay, when the actual romance begins, it's depicted as being so natural and tender that he seems completely blameless.

So what exactly is the point? Does Jefferson's treatment of Sally Hemings establish his racism or his instinctive color-blindness? Unfortunately, the picture is so unfocused and tumbles so rapidly from one event to another that it's difficult to tell. Also, while all this is going on, a great deal of screen time is spent on the romance between Jefferson and the beautiful painter and musician Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi)—a relationship that goes nowhere and reveals almost nothing about either party.

Watching "Jefferson in Paris," you can't help feeling that the team of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala doesn't care much about history, American or otherwise. What it cares about is furniture.

Jefferson in Paris is rated PG-13.

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