Jefferson in Paris
Directed by James Ivory. Starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Gwyneth Paltrow, Thandie Newton, Simon Callow, Seth Gilliam, James Earl Jones, Tim Choate, Nancy Marchand. (1995, PG-13, 139 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 21, 1995
Why it is that a movie would deign to take liberties with history and then, in practice, smother its own instincts, is something I'll never quite understand. As good a demonstration of this tendency as you're ever likely to see can be found in the latest Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaboration, Jefferson in Paris. The movie incorporates all the elegant set-dressing detail and historical spectacle that has come to typify the product of this particular producer, director, and writer team (Remains of the Day, Howards End), though the historically-minded have been quick to jump into the argumentative fray as supporters or detractors. Both sides have their points and I find these arguments are best left to the history pros. Yet Jefferson in Paris depends on one of these issues -- the proposition that Jefferson fathered six children with one of his mulatto slaves, Sally Hemmings (who, herself, was an illegitimate half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife) -- for its organizing narrative principle. In light of the fact that there is only circumstantial evidence to support this popular theory, Jefferson in Paris is grounded by this supposition yet treads gingerly through its necessary conjectures. Though the movie is set in a clearly defined four-year period (1784-89) during which Jefferson served as the American ambassador to France, it makes assumptions about Jefferson's character that both pre-date and post-date the story's time frame. What is curiously lacking from this portrayal of Jefferson is a sense of libido that would make Jefferson's actions more credible in, at least, a narrative context if not a historical one. Nolte's Jefferson is no limp characterization, however. Nolte lends a stature and believability to many other aspects of the man: as a diplomat, inventor, father, musician, and American. But Jefferson in Paris will do little to revive Nolte's sagging career after his two big commercial flops of last year, I'll Do Anything and I Love Trouble. What really sunders the movie is its fractured focus. Too many aspects are tossed into the mix with little regard for their sustainability and narrative flow. True, Jefferson was one of those amazing Renaissance types whose abundance of personal accomplishments would bedevil any reasonable biographer. But there are so many smatterings of story lines loose in this movie that it all plays like a series of wax figure tableaux. Also disconcerting is the movie's framing device of one of Sally Hemmings' sons telling to a reporter in Ohio the story of his origins. How this character, who was not even born at the time, can be used as the narrative springboard for telling the story of Jefferson's four years in France, is confounding, to say the least. Structural problems such as this run rampant through the movie. All we can establish with any confidence by the close of Jefferson in Paris is that the movie adds more fodder to those old “father of his country” jokes. All that's missing is the smut.