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One of the obsessive speculations in American history is whether Thomas Jefferson, in the years before he became president, had an affair with (and fathered a child with) his 15-year-old slave Sally Hemings. JEFFERSON IN PARIS follows Jefferson to France (as the U.S. ambassador to the court of Louis XVI), following the death of his wife his friendships and flirtations with the French, his relationship with his daughters and slaves from home (especially Sally), against the backdrop of the beginning of the French Revolution. Written by
Michael C. Berch <email@example.com>
This is a screen account, directed by James Ivory, of a fascinating historical episode - Thomas Jefferson's period as US ambassador in Paris for the five years leading up to the 1789 revolution. Many Americans may be put off the film, because they do not accept its assumption that Jefferson was the father of children born to his young slave Sally Hemings. Non-Americans may be less interested in this arguable relationship than in the undoubted fact that Jefferson - a passionate believer in individual liberty and draftsman of the Declaration of Independence with its ringing references to equality and inalienable rights - was a slave-owner, and that he could justify his two-way stance (at least to himself).
Jefferson also displays double-think when, though a fierce defender of religious liberty, he stops his pious, dutiful daughter Patsy (Martha) -an admirable portrayal by Gyneth Paltrow in a difficult role - from converting to Catholicism and joining a convent. Overall, Jefferson does not come out of the movie too well. In addition to revealing him as a child-molesting hypocrite, Ruth Jhabvala's scenario allows Nick Nolte to convey the tentative and observant side of Jefferson's character, but gives him scant opportunity to bring out the depth and breadth of Jefferson's mind or his political philosophy.
In addition to the visual delights of costume and setting that we have learned to expect from Merchant-Ivory productions, the most successful aspect of the movie is the all-but love affair between Jefferson and witty, charming Maria Cosway - the wife of a foppish English artist (Simon Callow in full make-up) - a role in which Greta Scacchi lights up the screen. By contrast, Thandie Newton has been criticised for her awkward hamming as Sally, but it should be remembered that she is playing an uneducated 14 or 15 year old girl.
Perhaps the movie's worst features are the "framing" sequences set in the late 19th century, where a Jefferson/Hemings descendent (James Earl Jones) relates his family history to a newspaper reporter. If these superfluous scenes had been cut, perhaps there would have been time to go deeper into Jefferson's politics, which after all is why the man is remembered today.
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