The founding fathers have always managed to elude successful capture in films , and while the Merchant Ivory team has done better than some with “Jefferson in Paris,” the baffling track record still holds. This decorous look at the great man’s five years as ambassador to France in the period leading up to the French Revolution touches upon much significant history, incident and emotion but, ironically, lacks the intrigue and drama of great fiction. The distinguished team’s first effort under the Disney banner will do a degree of business with their regular audience, students and, potentially, those interested in the interracial romance central to the story’s second half. But acclaim and B.O. success, so integrally linked where Merchant Ivory are concerned, will be more muted than for their recent glittering literary adaptations.
Except for the Broadway musical adaptation “1776,” Thomas Jefferson has been rarely depicted in the cinema. As a protean thinker, writer, governmental philosopher, politician, architect and inventor, among other things, Jefferson has always been a great subject for biographers and historians.
Then there was his afflicted and complicated personal life, which saw the death of several children as well as his wife, and his evident fathering of several other children by a black slave.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s original script makes use of all of this to tacitly pinpoint in Jefferson the root of America’s greatness as well as its tragedy. Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and was one of the leading visionaries of democracy, but, the film suggests, his understandable but still hypocritical inability to extend his principles to cover blacks as well as whites helped foster the fissure in the American dream that persists to this day.
Framed by some explanatory material recited years later by one of his alleged offspring, played by James Earl Jones, the action proper begins with Jefferson (a full-maned, sternly serious Nick Nolte) being introduced at the French court in 1784.
As one of the primary instigators of the successful revolt against the British, Jefferson is the subject of considerable fascination for the nobility, among which he has numerous friends. But he is also a source of inspiration for the rabble-rousers who seek to do to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette what the Yanksdid to the British.
While professionally and politically very much at the center of things, personally Jefferson remains shell-shocked by the loss of his beloved wife three years before. To Paris he’s brought his bright and lovely teenage daughter, Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), but, over her protests, he places her in a convent school even though they’re not Catholic.
Also with him is one of the slaves he inherited from his wife’s family, James (Seth Gilliam), to whom he agrees to pay a salary while on foreign soil.
Humorless, distant and impatient with the frivolity and pretension of aristocratic society, Jefferson is opened up by the beautiful and flirtatious Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the English-Italian wife of foppish British painter Richard Cosway (Simon Callow). After a time, Jefferson, despite his vow to his dying wife never to marry again, becomes quite ardently interested in Maria.
But events come between them, and their relationship (the full extent of which is not really made clear) must continue mostly by mail. When Jefferson learns that his youngest daughter has died back in Virginia, he sends for his other daughter, Polly, who is accompanied to France by her beautiful 15-year-old nurse, Sally (Thandie Newton), who is James’ sister.
Oddly, as the opportunity for drama increases with the onset of Jefferson’s affair with Sally and the buildup toward the Revolution, the narrative becomes more dispersed and murky. Things happen — Patsy threatens to become a nun, Maria gets wind of Jefferson’s interest in his slave girl, the king and queen are carted off, Sally becomes pregnant — but they don’t weave and dovetail in the surprising, intricate and telling ways they can in first-class fiction, some of Merchant Ivory’s recent films included.
The strong points of director James Ivory’s approach here are his attentiveness to wonderful detail, including Jefferson’s double-penned writing machine for making duplicate copies,his passion for playing violin-piano duets with the women in his life, his fascination with the levels of society and, befitting the director of “The Remains of the Day,” his special bent for examining master-servant relationships and his nonjudgmental attitude toward diverse characters.
The downside is that Ivory’s reticence makes it additionally tough for an emotionally remote figure like Jefferson to come alive onscreen. Not that one wants to see the future third president of the United States thrashing around in the sack, but Ivory is so discreet about his protagonist’s amorous activities that one never knows how physical his relations with Maria ever become, nor precisely when things begin with Sally. As someone says of Jefferson’s heart, “He wears it under a suit of armor,” and one only rarely hears it beating.
Numerous scenes are carried off nicely, particularly a splendidly superfluous scene at the opera that beautifully conjures up the social function of the event as well as a strong sense of the period’s stagecraft. A bawdy pornographic puppet show almost single-handedly earned the film its PG-13 rating.
Nolte’s job of winning over the viewer to his interpretation of Jefferson is not made any easier by the character’s initially rigid and severe demeanor, which makes the actor seem a bit awkward and ill at ease at first. Nolte may not project the essence of a man of genius, but he gradually becomes quite acceptable within the boundaries of the script, relaxing and growing into the role.
Scacchi acquits herself attractively and capably as an upper-class wife willing to flee her impossible marriage for this powerfully alluring American. Newton makes Sally a saucy and vivacious girl still too young to rightly know her proper place in the world.
Paltrow is captivating as one of the story’s most intriguing figures, a young lady desperately attached to her father and yet angry with him over the slavery issue and his sequestering of her at the convent. Callow lays on the buffoonishness of his would-be cuckold rather thickly, and Michael Lonsdale, as Louis XVI, suggests that the king is long since resigned to being led anywhere his queen will take him.
Shot on superb natural locations in France, the picture is a riot of period detail, with special attention to Jenny Beavan and John Bright’s enormous and colorful supply of costumes, Guy-Claude Francois’ sumptuous production design and Carol Hemming’s elaborate makeup and hair work.
Once again, Richard Robbins has supplied a supremely sensitive and supple score for a Merchant Ivory production.