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‘Jefferson in Paris’ (PG-13)

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1995

As beautifully staged as all Merchant-Ivory films, "Jefferson in Paris" is nevertheless a disaster, intellectually infuriating and thoughtlessly racist. In this script, which bowdlerizes a crucial juncture in Thomas Jefferson's life, the Founding Father merely founders (and fathers).

The film is set just before the French Revolution, an emotional apex for the real-life radical. But this Jefferson (Nick Nolte, who looks fair but sounds shaky) advises Lafayette et al. on human greed and society with less attention than he expends on a word game. His own revolutionary impulse, to carry off the married Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), simply fizzles away. His repartee has been lifted from letters and sounds it—except when, jerking his daughter out of a convent, he suddenly spouts sensitivespeak: "You said you'd always be there for me."

Most bizarrely, the movie nearly ignores the crucial paradox, that of the liberal icon Jefferson's purportedly taking teenaged slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) as mistress. Poor Sally's problematical existence is presumably the excuse for the story, which is told by her freed son (James Earl Jones, whose famous diction makes his "slave grammar" ridiculous). But this Sally is a simple-minded and sometimes sly flirt (the word "pickaninny" painfully comes to mind) incapable of inspiring such personally taboo passion. The resonance of Sally's being half-sister to Jefferson's sainted dead wife is unexplored. The drama this movie so obviously avoids—the rivalry of two intelligent, conventionally unacceptable women (the married Cosway and the black Hemings) for Jefferson's soul—is the only one that might have mattered.

JEFFERSON IN PARIS (PG-13) — No nudity or profanity; very mild violence.

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