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MOVIE REVIEW : Presidential Liaisons : Jefferson's Life and Loves Are at Heart of Merchant Ivory's Latest

March 31, 1995|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Thomas Jefferson's idea of having fun in Paris was knocking down the walls of his house and putting up new ones. He enjoyed spending his evenings reading thick books and making multiple copies of his diary with the aid of a cumbersome machine. And when he really got worked up emotionally he'd say things like "For an American, freedom of religious conscience is one of our great privileges." Is it any wonder that "Jefferson in Paris" is not exactly cracklingwith romance and excitement?

Architect, philosopher, writer of the Declaration of Independence and America's third President, Jefferson fits any definition of an extraordinary man, but the more this listless,2-hour-and-22-minute epic unfolds, the more unclear it becomes why anyone thought the five years he spent in France's capital on the eve of that country's revolution would make an engrossing film. Could it be that the filmmakers got Jefferson confused with the man he succeeded as America's representative at the court of Louis XVI, party animal Benjamin Franklin, and only discovered their mistake once it was too late?

Given that the people involved in the project were the impeccably tasteful trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, that is not likely. Responsible for some of the most satisfying films of recent years, including "A Room With a View," "The Remains of the Day" and the masterful "Howards End," the team has also created its share of stiff misfires like "The Bostonians" and "Maurice," a group "Jefferson in Paris" is closely akin to.

Because this is a Merchant Ivory film, the look of the past has been beautifully re-created with great care and the (relatively) little cost of $15 million. "Jefferson" not only outfitted more than 1,500 extras (with fabric manufactured in low-cost India) but pulled off some quite elaborate set pieces, including a festive night at the opera and a memorable day when a robin's-egg-blue hot-air balloon rose above Versailles.

But the successful Merchant Ivory ventures have done more than look attractive, they've forged emotional connections with the audience, something "Jefferson in Paris" is unable to do. A wax-museum movie that is both bland and reverential despite its focus on the great man's love life, "Jefferson" is hampered by its disconnected protagonist, accurately described as a gentleman who "wears his heart under a suit of armor."

Given the prodigious amount of research involved, the film's portrait of Jefferson as grave, formal and unbending, both serious and seriously repressed, is presumably accurate. But accuracy does not ensure interest, and watching this exacting gentleman diffidently cope with not one but two romantic attachments is not the stuff that dreams are made of.

Though he does a better job than scoffers will expect, selecting Nick Nolte to play Jefferson was not inspirational casting. Nolte took the part seriously enough to acquire a Jefferson library of some 200 volumes as well as an on-again, off-again Virginia accent, but he is not one of those actors who plays period easily and the strain affects his performance, especially hampering his ability to establish a rapport with the two women in his romantic life.

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One of those relationships is a liaison historians have bickered about ever since Fawn Brodie's 1974 biography publicized the assertion that Jefferson had several children with a slave named Sally Hemings, his late wife's half-sister. "Jefferson" opens in Pike County, Ohio, in 1873, with a kind of teaser trailer for the Hemings liaison, as Madison Hemings (James Earl Jones), one of those children, claims to a startled reporter that President Jefferson was his father.

The film then flashes back to widower Jefferson's arrival in Paris, where the only woman in evidence is his daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow). She turns out to be an emotional obstructionist, possessive of her father to the point of hostility toward any potential rivals.

The first woman she faces off against is Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the wife of the celebrated but sexually ambiguous painter Richard (Simon Callow). She and Jefferson archly flirt from almost the moment they meet (if you can call dialogue like her "Tell me about America" and his "The subject is as large as the land itself" flirting), but Jefferson's romantic obtuseness is not so easily disposed of.

Next to catch the Virginian's eye is a young slave named Sally Hemings, who arrives in Paris as a companion for Jefferson's youngest daughter. Though British actress Thandie Newton looks suitably attractive, she does not come off as young (14 going on 15) as the film claims, and she is further handicapped by the script's use of dialect, presumably historically accurate but cloying and awkward to hear on the screen.

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