Jefferson in Paris (United States/United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Bostonians. A Room With A View. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Howards End. The Remains of the Day. These represent the best of Merchant-Ivory -- a category in which their latest, Jefferson in Paris, does not belong. Nevertheless, although this examination of several years in the life of Thomas Jefferson (the U.S. minister to France between 1784 and 1789) is flawed, it nevertheless represents two-plus hours of diverting melodrama. The historical accuracy of certain plot points may be in doubt, but this certainly isn't the first motion picture "based on a true story" to play loose with the facts.

Nick Nolte looks like Thomas Jefferson, and his deserved reputation as a fine actor further argues in his favor as the perfect choice for the title role. Inexplicably, however, Nolte is actually rather flat. As was the case with Robert Duvall in HBO's Stalin, the part seems to smother him. He's adequate, but no emoting is involved, and there are many sequences where Jefferson comes across as stiff and lifeless. Nolte never successfully forges a bond between his character and the audience.

The whole film is rather superficial. It tells its story reasonably well, but doesn't do much more. Considering that this picture comes from Merchant-Ivory, the producer-director team that has given us a number of multi-layered films, the lack of depth is disappointing. Jefferson in Paris is just another Masterpiece Theater-style costume drama.

There are four principle storylines developing in parallel throughout the movie. The first relates to Jefferson's burgeoning friendship/romance with painter Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi). The second follows the changes in his relationship with one of his slaves, fifteen-year old Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). Another examines the jealous reactions of his daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) to his mistresses. The final, and potentially most interesting, is an observation of the political events leading up to the French Revolution, and how Jefferson reacts to these.

In Jefferson in Paris, it's the secondary performers who impress. Thandie Newton (Flirting) brings life and vibrancy to Sally (although there is one horribly over-the-top scene where she dances for Jefferson in the privacy of his bed chamber). Gwyneth Paltrow, who was excellent in her Flesh and Bone debut, gives a multi-dimensionality to a character conflicted by love, commitment, and jealousy. Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) has a delightful turn as the gay husband of Scacchi's Maria.

When it comes to issues, Jefferson in Paris is feeble and fumbling. After introducing the ironic hypocrisy of Jefferson's having written a document claiming that "all men are created equal" while nevertheless maintaining a significant contingent of slaves, little more of substance is presented on the subject. Equally given short shrift is the ideology underlying the French Revolution. Aside from a few brief discussions filled with facile arguments, this particular element of the plot seems designed more as an historical backdrop than anything else.

Impressions of Jefferson in Paris are likely to be based largely upon expectations. Those anticipating something with the depth and breadth of a Howards End will be disappointed. Regardless, though it may be occasionally slow-moving and perhaps a half-hour too long, this film is put together with care and a mindfulness of quality. Little here is exceptional, but, fortunately, less is below par. In the end, like Queen Margot or 1776, Jefferson in Paris serves as a snapshot of history and the characters that made their mark upon it.

Jefferson in Paris (United States/United Kingdom, 1995)

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lambert Wilson, Simon Callow
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Cinematography: Pierre L'Homme
Music: Richard Robbins
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 1995-04-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: