Thomas Jefferson was a great American statesman--probably the greatest--and Nick Nolte is a superb American movie star. What a shame that the collaboration of these two estimable men--Nolte plays Jefferson in Jefferson in Paris, the new movie by producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory--is so utterly dull. About the only comfort to be taken from the film is that the reputations of both Jefferson and Nolte will surely survive it. Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, chief architect of American democracy and third president of the United States, was certainly the greatest political thinker this nation has yet produced, and arguably the most influential single person of recent centuries--in the political sphere, at least. Those who make up our government today, on both sides, still haven't caught up with his vision.
Nolte is one of the best leading men in American movies, combining the personality of a true movie star with the talent of a first-rate actor. His best performances--the wounded bear of a crooked detective in Q & A; the hyper, hustling convict-playwright of Weeds; the growling foil to Eddie Murphy in 48HRS.; the true-hearted yet sly bum in Down and Out in Beverly Hills--have been so quintessentially American that one might have thought that Nolte would be limited by nationality. But then he brought such a beautiful intensity and tenderness to the role of the Italian father in Lorenzo's Oil that it seemed as if, maybe, he could do anything, after all.
It took the role of an American--of the American, one might almost say--to undo Nolte. Jefferson in Paris is, I think, the worst film he's ever done. A quick scan of his credits reveals not one film, not even Return to Macon County, that I wouldn't rather sit through again than this costumer. Not even I'll Do Anything. Ghastly as it was, overall, Nolte, at least, was in fine form.
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As Jefferson, he's completely lacking in energy. He seems embarrassed and stymied into overcaution by the role, as if epic, historically specific greatness were as far outside his range as virile intelligence and common-man bearing are easy for him. He stands around with a vague smile on his face, reciting his lines in a low monotone. In one scene, he's supposed to be so elated by love that he takes an impetuous dive over some logs and injures himself. As nothing in his demeanor has prepared us for this sudden leap, it's a hilarious non sequitur. If Nolte were less clueless in the lead, Jefferson in Paris would be more watchable, but it still wouldn't be remotely a good movie. The script is by Ivory's usual collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who's a skillful adapter of novels (A Room With a View, Howards End and others), but doesn't seem to have any idea how to shape historical material into compelling drama.
The focus of the plot is Jefferson's love life during his diplomatic tenure in Paris, about 1784. First, we're shown his romance with the Italian-born wife of an English painter (Greta Scacchi). The painter is played by Simon Callow, whose cheery, bustling foppery makes him seem a good deal more appealing than the dour, decorous Jefferson. Later, a lovely young slave woman, Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton, the Ugandan schoolgirl in director John Duigan's lovely Flirting), arrives from the States, and we see Jefferson begin to take sexual notice of her.
That the latter relationship produced several children is referred to in a framing sequence set nearly a century later, but the narrator in these scenes (James Earl Jones) never seems to be telling the story we're seeing in flashback, and the frame has no real resolution. Neither does the strand involving Jefferson and the married lady. The point of it all appears to be that, in opting for the lusty slave woman over Scacchi, Jefferson was able to keep a deathbed vow to his wife never to remarry. This is a little thin for the epic scale of the subject--it's as if we're supposed to be astounded that that guy on the $2 bill had a love life--so the subplots are piled on. Jefferson's daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been lodged in a convent, is flirting with becoming a Catholic, and every now and then, Ivory shoos some extras with torches through the background to show that another revolution, inspired in part by the American example, was just around the bend in France.
All it amounts to, however, is a jumble of anecdotes, each moderately interesting in itself but dramatized so listlessly that they add up to nothing--no coherent picture of the times, no convincing portrait of the man. As usual with Merchant-Ivory films, the settings, costumes and period detail are sumptuous, the cinematography pretty. But in place of a script, we're given a shapeless patchwork, and in place of Jefferson, we're given a self-conscious actor in a wig.