Most of what I read and heard about this movie led me to believe that it was chiefly concerned with Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton) - However, there are other threads running through that take up as much time and attention in this film. If there is a central theme here it seems to be an examination of some of the failures of Jefferson as a man of principle. Both Jefferson's public and private ideals are put to the test during his stay in Paris. And he, arguably fails on every count. However, somehow (at least for me) he remains a sympathetic character-even with his many faults.
Early on in the film Jefferson is called to account by the liberal French aristocrats that he associates with regarding the failure of the American Revolution to address the issue of slavery. Jefferson admits that slavery is evil (he even tried to have an anti-slavery clause inserted in the Declaration of Independence) -but he has no answer when the Frenchmen assert that the American Revolution was "incomplete".
The question of slavery also figures into Jefferson's rather ethereal romance with the wife of an English painter (Mrs Cosway played by Greta Scacci). When questioned about the matter he is only able to put her off by simply saying that it would be impossible for a foreigner to understand slavery as practiced in the American south.
Gwyenth Paltrow gives perhaps the best performance in the film as Jefferson's troubled oldest daughter (Patsy). She sees her close relationship with her father threatened by both Mrs Cosway and then later by Sally Hemmings' appearance on the scene as the nursemaid to Jefferson's younger daughter. Jefferson puts Patsy into a convent but is later taken aback when she evidences an interest in converting to Catholcism. The Mother Superior (Nancy Marchand) of the convent taunts Jefferson, when he comes to retrieve his daughter. by pointing out that freedom of religion is an idea (after all) championed in the U.S. Constituion. The idea here, of course, is that Jefferson is being a hypocrite once again by denying his daughter her own choice in the matter. I must say though that the Mother Superior's jibes ring rather hollow to me in as much as an 18th century Catholic nun would not be my first choice to represent the voice of conscience regarding the promotion of human liberty.
Thandie Newton may have the most difficult job here in so much as so little is known about Sally Hemmings (We do get a couple scenes of ineffective exposition in the guise of Sally's son (James Earl Jones) being interviewed seventy years later). Newton chooses to play the character very broadly and she comes across as quite believable in both reflecting the speech and manners of a 15 year old slave girl fresh off a Virginia Plantation (all the more remarkable since she is a 22 year old Englishwoman---her accent only fails her in one scene I think). The character of Sally Hemmings stands in sharp contrast to the almost painful sophistication exhibited by the French nobility that Jefferson associates with. I note that some posters on IMDb criticize Newton's portrayal as lacking depth and even sinking at points to the "stepanfetchit" level. I disagree. Newton- is showing us a confused girl-far from home--and certainly a girl at times who has her own agenda--however naive.
It is obvious here that Merchant and Ivory are attempting to get us, at every point in the picture, to question the character of Jefferson--However,- the way the affair between he and Hemmings is handled speaks much to the limit of how far the film-makers were willing to go. The affair itself is still clouded by controversy but in almost all circumstances, a 50 year old man having an affair with a 15 year old girl must be considered, at least, culpable if not criminal. There really is no such thing as consensual sex between a slave and a master. Since nobody really knows the hows and whys of the affair, Merchant and Ivory had free license to present it in any light that they wanted---and they chose to make (unrealistically in my view) Sally Hemmings the sole initiator of the affair -- In fact, it's difficult to picture Nolte's Jefferson as initiating the affair--much less forcing it. I think that this version of events rather begs credulity.
As usual, Merchant and Ivory, have produced a movie that has wonderful period details - the costumes and sets are at the very top of the line in every way. The building storm of the revolution is set as the backdrop to all that happens in the film. Mob scenes are inserted between views into the luxury and leisure of the French nobility in an effort to remind us that many of these extremely glib and well dressed people will be without heads in the near future.
"Jefferson in Paris" offers a little something for everyone---History -Romance----class and race conflict----take your pick....It's a movie well worth watching.