Jefferson in Paris (1995) Poster

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Something for every taste
rimnod3 February 2005
I wouldn't have been too surprised if Merchant and Ivory had attempted to suit up Anthony Hopkins as Thomas Jefferson or perhaps even fitted Hugh Grant with shoe lifts and an ersatz Viriginia accent for the role. Instead they went with Nick Nolte - who at first glance seems an almost equally unlikely choice. However the casting proved to be inspired for Nolte does a remarkable job of capturing Jefferson during his stint as U.S. ambassador to France on the the eve of the French Revolution. Nolte effectively projects Jefferson's pride, intelligence and intellectual curiosity............ and human frailties.

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.
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More foundling father than Founding Father
Geofbob31 July 2001
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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Better than Grandiose
fowler-1611 July 2005
So many of the negative comments seem to be reactions against either downplaying or overemphasizing Jefferson's relationship with Sally. It strikes me that this is a reasonably balanced presentation of what's been learned in recent years. Other negative critiques are the disappointments recorded by patriots expecting some grandiose pageant for Fourth of July consumption. But this is all-in-all a less pretentious and better film than the typical celebration of Americana. Nolte presents Jefferson as an idealistic but very human being. Paltrow is very persuasive as Patsy, and many of the rest of the cast present excellent (or well-proportioned) characterizations. Except for some trivial inaccuracies, this is a richly textured reconstruction of history as it may very well have occurred. I find that I look in on it just about every time it pops up on cable--and I'm always rewarded.
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Cerebral Affairs
treagan-210 June 2003
Although I have been interested in Jefferson for many years, I put off seeing this film for some reason, and only caught it recently on cable.

I give it mixed reviews, generally favorable. Ivory/Merchant have again fashioned a lavish tableau, and the sets, costumes, props, etc. are first rate.

The cast is solid. I was afraid Nolte would be a little too rough for my image of Jefferson, but that played out all right.

What made this film interesting to me was certainly not whether it was accurate in a historical sense. How could it be--not nearly enough is known of that situation. The question is whether or not the film is plausible and "honest within itself," i.e., whether we can accept the story as having something to tell us, if what is depicted is historically true or not.

To me, the movie is about freedom, and the contradictions of freedom. Jefferson, freedom's advocate, is ensnared within the institution of slavery, and that ends up torpedoing any mature romance with Maria Cosway. Jefferson is also in his own life quite rigid, pulling his own daughter back from possible conversion to Roman Catholicism. His granting of freedom to James and Sally Hemmings has limitations.

What bothered me some about the movie was its use of the backdrop of the coming French Revolution--by itself a commentary on the limitations of freedom. To the filmmakers it seems "the Terror," two or three years in the future, is the definitive statement and stage of the revolution. The movie even seems soft on the ancienne regime, which over time killed a lot more people than the Terror.

These muted investigations of freedom in the film move very slowly, but still hold interest--they are thoughtful, probing, and, to a degree, don't pass simplistic judgements on people.

Cerebral film, but then Jefferson was a cerebral guy!
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Jefferson in Love
Varlaam7 March 1999
We are invited here to see some of the more infrequently discussed aspects of the multifaceted Thos. Jefferson: architect, scientist, horticulturalist. Less of these perhaps than we might like, but more than we usually receive. Jefferson the scientist is mostly implied -- he witnesses one of the early Montgolfier ballooning experiments, for example.

The primary focus is on the contentious matter of Jefferson's affairs of the heart. These include, most notably, a speculative miscegenetic one, but there is a second one, better documented, for contrast. Even if one suspects that the decision to direct attention here was primarily a commercial one, those portions of the film are well enough executed, while the creators, Prawer Jhabvala and Ivory, do provide us with a little seasoned food for the intellect, both here and elsewhere.

"Jefferson in Paris" does contain a few speech anachronisms but otherwise seems to have found the flavour of the period. Altogether, not an exceptional film, but one which has much to recommend it.
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When you're the father of girls
bkoganbing31 December 2017
It was said by one of Thomas Jefferson's successors that when he (John F. Kennedy) gathered a distinguished group from the arts and sciences for a White House dinner, Kennedy was wont to remark that this was the most eclectic and brilliant group of people ever gathered at the White House except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. A tribute indeed to the versatility and genius of our 3rd president who more than dabbled in so many fields.

Philosopher, inventor, politician, farmer, musician, and chronicler of events this film focuses on Jefferson as father and lover and slavemaster. Whatever else he was Thomas Jefferson was a product of his times and culture in the colonial plantation culture of tidewater Virginia.

Nick Nolte who did a lot of action/adventure films cuts a nice figure as Jefferson. Certainly better than the originally intended Jack Nicholson would have been. No reflection on Jack, but can you see all those imitators reciting the Declaration of Independence in that Nicholson voice?

When Jefferson became our Minister to France under the Articles of Confederation he brought his eldest surviving daughter Patsy played by Gwyneth Paltrow. He was a widower at the time, formerly married to Martha Wayles Skelton who died in 1781.

During that time Jefferson had a rather open affair with artist Maria Cosway who was married to a regency rake type Richard Cosway. As Cosway played by Simon Callow was a serial cheater, Maria didn't let grass grow under her feet either. The times were pretty bawdy in Paris during those last years of Louis XVI. A seductive Cosway is played by Greta Sacchi.

Later on Jefferson is joined by his younger daughter Polly and she gets accompanied by slave Sally Hemmings who was maybe 15 at the time she first came over. Hemmings was actually a biological half sister of his late wife,, she was fathered by the father of the late Mrs. Jefferson. As played by Thandie Newton, Sally is one sly little minx.

Over earlier with Jefferson was her brother who was brought over to Paris to learn the art of French cooking. The dialog between Seth Gilliam as the brother and Thandie Newton about how slaves survive in a white man's world is quite insightful. In fact Gilliam demands and gets wages from Jefferson while in Paris.

Paris and continental France may not have had slaves, but I daresay Gilliam might have changed certain attitudes as he was not possibly aware of what the French were doing in the West Indies, especially Haiti. That pot would boil over in the beginning of the upcoming century.

What I liked best was the recreation of decadent Paris of the 1780s before the Revolution. The producing directing team of Merchant-Ivory did a superb job recreating the period with Nick Nolte narrating some of the correspondence of Jefferson as commentary. Other foreign observers had a much different take on these events. Just read A Tale Of Two Cities for an alternative view of events.

Jefferson In Paris is a superb production and highly recommended to those who want to learn about Thomas Jefferson and a slice of the time he lived in.
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An interesting American history movie
bigone23 February 2000
My interest in seeing this movie was to compare it with the recent CBS mini series, "Sally Hemmings," which I recently saw and enjoyed. This movie was slow moving and not nearly as interesting as the mini series but it did provide some supplementary information about Jefferson that was not in the mini series. The movie, of course, was written from Jefferson's perspective while the mini series was written from the perspective of Sally Hemmings. The photography in the movie was wonderful as well as the acting. The last part of the movie, was by far the best.
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Jefferson the jerk--contains spoilers.
wolfie-831 January 1999
Warning: Spoilers
"Jefferson in Paris" is a truly confounding film. It presents Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte) in the most unflattering light possible, painting him as a liar, racist and pedophile, yet offers not a shred of condemnation for those sins. This is the way he was, the film seems to say. End of sentence, end of movie, the door's behind you.

After arriving in Paris with his daughter Patsy (Gwenyth Paltrow), Jefferson proceeds to win the heart of Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the wife of a homosexual English painter (the criminally underused Simon Callow). A turn of events sends Maria to England, however, and Jefferson proceeds to forget her with astonishing speed for a man who, mere minutes of screen time before, was asking her to live with him in America.

He's been bewitched, you see, by Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton), one of his slaves just arrived from America. Just why he's bewitched is hard to tell--although Sally is undeniably beautiful, she acts like a simple-minded child in front of Jefferson. When she isn't telling ghost stories in exaggerated "darky" speech patterns, she's slinking around his bedroom, practically oozing lust for her distinguished massa.

If her behavior is an attempt to excuse Jefferson's, it doesn't work. Jefferson damns himself further when Maria, tired of waiting for his letters, travels from England to see him. I've not changed toward you, he insists, offering weak excuses for not writing. To her credit, Maria sees through his brazen lies immediately. When Sally appears, and she and Jefferson flirt openly (and cruelly, to my mind) in Maria's very presence, the illusion falls apart completely.

No one today believes that Jefferson, Washington and the rest were utter paragons of virtue and morality. Yet, are we supposed to believe that the learned, distinguished Jefferson would be attracted to Sally, a woman whose most intelligent conversation is about how "massa's Frenchie friends don' unnastan' aw corn" and who rubs herself against his front as she passes, right before Maria's eyes?

Even if we let that slide, it's followed by the horrifying revelation that Sally was only 15 when this affair took place (Jefferson was 41). Strangely, this fact comes out only toward the very end, when Sally's brother James is understandbly furious at her blase announcement that she is carrying Jefferson's child.

Jefferson is equally blase when told that Sally is carrying his child, and patronizingly tells her that she'd be far better off under his protection than free and living in France with her brother. But, he promises, I'll free her when I die and our children (including any more that come, Jefferson says, in a chilling declaration of Sally as *his*) when they reach 21. Oh thank you, massa, you feel like telling the screen. Big deal.

The worst scene is still to come, however, involving Jefferson's daughter Patsy. She is already angry at him, first for breaking his vow, made to her mother on her deathbed, not to marry again. (Obviously the woman wasn't just talking about matrimony.) Jefferson has also refused to allow Patsy to become a nun as she wishes, despite earlier moralizing about freedom of religion (that seems to mean freedom to agree with him).

Having promised Sally and her brother their freedom, Jefferson calls in Patsy to witness the bargain and promise to fulfill it should anything happen to him. Sally's brother blurts out the impending birth of the child, and Jefferson asks, "do you swear?" Paltrow's performance in this scene is brilliant, although she has almost nothing to say. Her face nearly contorts in agonizing pain at this revelation, yet she controls her grief and whispers yes.

If anything, and the filmmakers could have had something if they'd emphasized this point more, "Jefferson in Paris" is an indication of the status of woman in the late 18th century, viewed even by men like Jefferson as attractive property, pleasing but without true intellect or souls. We see Jefferson shed a few tears over a letter from Maria, obviously telling him where to get off, but he's soon laughing away at a wild dance from Sally, complete with tossed hair and heaving bosom.

I don't know whether this is an accurate portrait of Jefferson or not. I don't care to watch it, however, just for the sake of watching it. This Jefferson is no hero or even an anti-hero. He's a selfish, lying child-molestor--and one who gets away with it--not the kind of man I want to see a movie about.
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Watch this film!
cafeuk11 September 2002
I watched this movie last night. Unbelievably, Channel 4 (tv channel here in the UK) scheduled it at 2.15am - right in the middle of the night! Who on earth is likely to watch it at that time? I just hope some people decided to record it & watch it later.

I think its a great film. I couldn't stop watching it. It gives you an insight into Thomas Jefferson and his personal life, and into the French society of the time. The film is also visually great.

But, as with any movie, it has its flaws. My main criticism is that it was too much like an historical documentary. It didn't have the courage to speculate more about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally (the black slave girl). Jefferson must - in real life - have displayed more emotion with the slave girl than is depicted in this film, especially behind closed doors. Yet we don't see it. We see Jefferson being more affectionate with his daughter (Jefferson hugs her at one point in the film), than with Sally the slave girl, and yet he is supposed to have been passionately involved with Sally & fathered her children. Therefore it has a documentary feel to it, without any fictional element, which leaves the viewer somewhat detached & disconnected.

But credit to the maker's for tackling the subject, and it's certainly made me interested in learning more about the man.
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The brand new world...
dbdumonteil28 March 2002
...and the old one collapsing.How tempting!Jefferson,who epitomizes democracy and freedom visiting the old wreck,France on the eve of revolution.

Ivory's precedent works were masterpieces (Howards end and remnants of the day)but they took place in England and they were not really historical,even if "remnants" made a fine blend of the historical background with the storybook elements.When it comes to history,and mainly French history,all we get here is a full load of clichés:Marie-Antoinette, playing with her flock of sheep,Doctor Guillotin,showing his new machine (he used to say that the condemned person could feel a nice fresh sensation before dying!),La Fayette and his wife Adrienne,and of course,the de rigueur lines (c'est une révolte?Non sire,c'est une révolution").The only daring gesture,so to speak,is the puppet theater,but even that was already in Ettore Scola's "la nuit de Varennes",(1982)with much more finesse,at that.A lot of French actors appear,which is the least Ivory could do but they are not always well cast:Michel Lonsdale is a very competent one,but he's too old to be a credible king (64 when Louis XVI was about 30!)Charlotte de Turckheim is an ugly Marie-Antoinette and some scenes in which she appears ,probably influenced by "Fellini-Casanova" (1977),do not help. This is Jean-Pierre Aumont's farewell to the screen (he was in Carné's "hotel du nord" in 1938!)in a very small part:I thought he was playing Mirabeau,but actually it's an obscure D'Hancarville.Lambert Wilson ,on the other hand,is a good choice for La Fayette,but h,most of the time,he's reduced to a walk-on.

As for the American side of the story,of course,Ivory focuses on slavery,and deservedly so.The French cannot understand that a country so in love with freedom could approve of such a thing.But it finally boils down to Nolte-and-black babe affair and it's overlong and tedious.The first scene between Jefferson and the abbess promised great things.But it's a disappointment when they meet again towards the end.

All in all,this is a lavish production,which is sometimes entertaining,but which lacks epic strength and has missed its date with

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Thoroughly Enjoyable
nicholls_les17 August 2017
I really enjoyed this movie as it is a retelling of a history of a man I knew little about.

The scenery and makeup was just about spot on and captured the period perfectly.

The script helped to tell the tale of an American who went along with slavery but away from America loosened his grip and treated his slaves as they should be treated, as people.

That said his sexual relationship with a teenage black girl slave shows the hypocrisy of the man. Although the movie does not go into gratuitous detail or unnecessary sexy scenes, in fact the only sexual scene is one involving rather obscene puppets that were popular at the time. Thandie Newton is outstanding in this movie and although she does not appear until half way through she lights up every scene she is in.

So a movie well worth a watch and one I would watch again.
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Just one bit of information
oneillrobyn12 June 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Jefferson promised to his wife on her deathbed that he would never marry again. It turns out that Sally Hemings and Jefferson's wife were half-sisters ... they had the same father. It has been noted that Jefferson's older daughter knew of the relationship but of course it wasn't discussed in their presumably polite household. I just got a tape (that's the only format available today) and I haven't looked at it yet. Since I saw the film only when it was released, and I've learned a lot about Jefferson since then, I'm looking forward to finding free time to just sit and watch. I'll be back and possibly change my rating, but I remember wishing for a more dynamic actor to play Jefferson.
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t235421 December 2004
I have viewed this movie numerous times and find the story profound. The acting supersedes the actual script, but this is why I rate this movie so high. Thandie Newton as Sally Hemming is as good as portrayal as any I've seen. Her naivety, yet bountiful charisma lingers in your mind for days and even now I can see her frolicking, sweet character. As for Nick Nolte, he IS Thomas Jefferson: stern yet generous, political yet extremely intelligent. And, unlike other Gwyneth Paltrow roles, she CAN play vindictive and succeeds wonderfully. Her contempt for her father's relationship with Sally, her slave/maid, coupled with her religious beliefs only compliment the main plot line. Her angst over joining the nunnery or continuing on to care for her father, provides the overall story with some depth. This helps suggest a theme of moral temperament and uninhibited enlightenment over issues of race and religious convictions. Although the movie drags at times, the acting shines through as superb.
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I don't have a problem with accepting the affair
jbuck_91917 December 2002
I love this movie, because I am a complete sucker for movies set in the 18th century, and this is exceptionally well done. Nick Nolte is the most extremely unlikely choice to play Jefferson, but somehow he and the director make it work. The extensive selections from Jefferson's letters as he watches things unravel in France add a great deal to the entertainmnet value.

Most people think that TJ signed the Constitution, when in fact he was US ambassador to France. From a costume point of view and in terms of certain vignettes, this movie does a marvelous job of debunking that notion.

Now to the Sally Hemmings thing. DNA evidence does not lie, and it is now clear that he did indeed father her children. But I have a problem, and I'm not sure if there is any historical resolution to it. In the movie, she is a "massah, how's you feelin' today" type slave. I'm willing to accept that they fell mutually in love, but I'm still having a hard time dealing with her not having more class. It is a mistake to believe that slaves of relatively enlightened owners (yes, folks, I know what I'm saying) had no sophistication.

Dumas Malone, the great biographer of Jefferson, would go into an apoplexy if you raised the possibility of this affair being real. Now that we know that it was, I might be his unworthy successor in suggesting that a man like Jefferson would not simply take a steppinfetchit slave girl to his bed, but would rather seek comfort in the arms of someone whom he could respect, however questionable the situation looks in a modern light.
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Tedious as being there yourself
MRavenwood2 April 2005
It is documented that John Adams, second President to the United States, loathed Parisian excess and found the endless gossip, parading, and parties to be a bore. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, it is reported, liked Paris much better, and had a reputation of being more of a dandy than is portrayed in this film. Not only is 35% or more of the movie's dialogue in untranslated French, that is, without subtitle either, but the endless tedium of the suffocating excesses of 17th century France are too accutely conveyed. I found Nick Nolte uncompelling and Gwynneth Paltrow's performance doesn't seem like it was fully captured, somehow. The costuming is beautiful and particular attention seems to have been invested in hair and wig styling history. As far as the story goes, though, I kept wondering what Jefferson saw in either his European love interest, or in Sally Hemmings that drove him into the arms of either of them. The accents of all the actors just don't work for me. I didn't buy it that Sally Hemmings would have such a pronounced country accent after living exclusively with Jefferson and his immediate family for such a time, if anything, she would have picked up a French lilt to her speech.
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Historically accurate, as much as possible
samsloan-123 April 2006
I have written a book on this subject, "The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson", first published in 1992, so I was expecting to find numerous errors. However, I could not find any. They seem to have made a special effort to make it as accurate as possible, so that a viewer will actually learn a bit of history.

This movie is really more about the history of France, than about the history of America. The French Revolution begins to unfold before your eyes, although the real revolution did not take place until after Jefferson had returned to America.

One problem is that the movie is not very exciting. No car chase scenes, for example. However, this is understandable since it would be difficult to make a film which is both historically accurate and a success at the box office.

Also, the movie does not actually show Thomas Jefferson in bed with either Maria Cosway or Sally Hemings. It is widely believed among historians that Jefferson slept with both women during his stay in Paris, but there is no real proof that either relationship occurred, and therefore the filmmakers wisely left that out.

Sam Sloan
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Jefferson in Plaster of Paris
RodReels-218 November 2005
The lavish production values that you generally find in a Merchant/Ivory film are all here, but this is an exceedingly dull take on what could have been a very lively affair. I agree with an earlier poster that it makes no sense for the story to be unfolding through the eyes of an African American family and yet their own ancestor, Sally Hemmings, has barely a role to play in the proceedings. There is not much clarity to be found in helping the audience understand the motivations of any of these historical figures. And I was very bothered by the accents of a number of the characters. Nancy Marchand sounded very British for what one assumes is a French nun. And both Gwyneth Paltrow and Greta Scacchi seemed to be trying out different accents in various scenes. In fact, Gwyneth is very poorly served in this biopic. Her role as Thomas Jefferson's daughter, Martha, is written in such a manner that we never get a handle on who she really is. One moment she is slapping a slave, and another moment, she's deploring the whole system of slavery. Nick Nolte performs the role well enough but doesn't ever make us truly care for Jefferson or any of his exploits. Very disappointing all in all.
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Revolutions in collision?
alun-williams7 December 2020
I'm very surprised at the low rating of this film, which I found fascinating if only for the view we get of French high society just before and at the start of the French Revolution. I loved the glimpses we got of French Opera, the Montgolfier brothers' balloon, Franz Mesmer's experiments, the Royal Court, and a Convent school. All of these are recreated in lavish detail. A considerable amount of the dialogue, especially during the first half of the film, is in French. I can only assume that for many viewers all this detracts from the central drama of the rivalry between three women for Thomas Jefferson's (Nick Nolte's) affections: his troubled and possessive daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose love for the church threatens to supplant her affection for her father; Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), an Anglo-Italian artist and musician whose marriage to painter husband Richard (Simon Callow) is one of convenience and not of passion; and Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), a young slave who is a much loved nursemaid to Jefferson's younger daughter Polly but also half-sister to his late wife and very much on the cusp of womanhood. Added to this is another family drama, the tension between Sally and her brother James, who has been brought to Paris to learn the secrets of French Cuisine, but who also comes under the influence of revolutionary ideas and yearns for his freedom.

These intimate dramas are all very civilised and restrained, somewhat in contrast to the increasing lawlessness around the protagonists as the revolution gathers pace, but as a stiff upper lipped Brit I enjoyed all the suppressed emotion and coded conversations, and didn't find the film overlong despite its considerable length. But what we see also poses questions about who the liberty and equality promised by the American revolution and the coming French one is for.

With so many ingredients, this is certainly more of a sprawling royal banquet of a film than a perfectly arranged nouvelle cuisine dish, but in an age where "The Crown"'s recreation of the British Royal family's doings has been such a success I think it perhaps should be better received now than when it was first released.

Perhaps not quite such an elegant delight as some of their other films, but still a very worthy opus in the Merchant Ivory catalogue, and I think very much underrated by both critics and audience.
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Beautiful to watch
HotToastyRag4 October 2020
Thomas Jefferson is one of our most fascinating presidents, so it's no wonder Hollywood keeps making movies about him. In this one, we get to see his relationships with the women in his life. It's always very interesting to find out a revered and powerful man has a weakness. Nick Nolte portrays a pre-president Jefferson, and after he's widowed, he goes to Paris to become the US minister. This is during the time of Marie Antoinette so be prepared to see some beautiful costumes and set designs. While he's there (remember the title) he meets Greta Scacchi and forms an attachment. The problem comes in the form of his daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow, who doesn't want her father to remarry.

Where's the romance you've been waiting to see, between Jefferson and Sally Hemings? Don't worry; it's there. Thandie Newton plays the next beauty in his life, and as we all know, there are obstacles to their happy-ever-after as well. If you find Jefferson an interesting subject, you'll like this intimate portrait that shows him as an imperfect man. You'll also see Simon Callow, James Earl Jones, and Nancy Marchand in the supporting cast.
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Superior historical drama
tauras-8824315 July 2019
I don't believe MRavenwood saw the same 'Jefferson in Paris' I did. I found the film fascinating aesthetically (costumes, art direction, cinematography, &c.) for depicting Paris, Jefferson, his daughters, his 'family' (slave brother & sister Sally Hemmings (J's wife's half sister)), the Lafayettes & their liberal aristocrat friends, French officers who'd served under Washington yet not rec'd compensation for their service, and J's married paramour. As an enthusiast of the Rev War & the periods immediately prior to & after it, the film was the best representation of the most important post-war period of J's life. Having lived for many years in Charlottesville, having worked for his greatest physical creation, the University of Virginia, & having toured, studied, & been involved in reconstruction of Monticello, the film helped open a window into what J. & his Paris experience might have been like. As far as acting & directing, I was surprised by how well casted were the principals, especially the women: Thandie Newton, Gwyneth Paltrow, & Greta Scacchi, as was Nick Nolte, who admirably under-dramatized his role. Two set pieces were especially entrancing, the dinner party a la fresca at the Lafayette's residence & the entrancing spectacle of the Montgolfiers' balloon rising above the trees at Versailles with several farmyard animal passengers in its basket & the chase on horseback to its landing in a meadow, and a scene depicting hoe teenage Sally (Thandie Newton) might possibly have first captured J's interest by means of her natural charms & a flirtatiousness no doubt fostered by knowledge of her own mother having been the recently deceased Mrs. Jefferson's father's mistress. The scene of J's seduction is discreet & tasteful, yet suggestive of what the truth may have been, so far as anyone will ever know. Given the fact that Sally didn't speak French or interact with French speakers outside of the house seevants, it's absurd to imagine that Thandie should have spoken English with a "French lilt." Her Tidewater Virginia Afro-American accent was spot on & a delight for this viewer to hear pronounced again after so many years listening to the accents of NYC.
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A great work, attempting to reconstruct a difficult and fascinating history
vondoba24 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Amazingly, several reviewers have apparently found that this marvelous 1995 film just could not meet their evidently peculiar standards or expectations. It boggles the mind and defies comprehension to consider the sort of niggling, whining, nagging, crabbed sort of critic that could, somehow and beyond all belief, manage to find serious error, or in fact any error, in this outstanding and beautiful film, shot on location in Paris with many scenes filmed in the palace of Versailles. One has to wonder: if this movie doesn't do it for them---what sort of film it is that appeals to this class of critic? Perhaps if the movie had included a few car explosions it might have pleased better these silly persons. The film chronicles the years 1784-89, when Jefferson served as Minister to the Parisian royal court for the fledgling US Congress; that is, in the period before and during the passage of the United States federal constitution, Jefferson being by then a world-renowned political celebrity. This is a historical drama of pitched and immense interest, presenting with great skill and art the sad and terrible racial politics of colonial America as presented through the fascinating personage of Thomas Jefferson, and his entourage of slaves---slaves now (temporarily) liberated in the environs of pre-revolutionary Paris. Conflicts ensue between Jefferson as Slave Master and his slaves, as the inevitable return to Monticello Plantation, which figures here almost as powerfully as it did for Jefferson himself, looms always ahead. Nick Nolte, an inspired if perhaps controversial and unexpected choice for the difficult role, portrays Jefferson's genius, complexities and faults with a fine and austere dignity and grace. The outstanding cast includes James Earl Jones; a young Gwyneth Paltrow as Jefferson's conflicted daughter Patsy; and a young Thandie Newton as Jefferson's paramour-slave-concubine Sally Hemings. With the imperial Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as background, and featuring the Marquis de Lafayette, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, Jefferson's beautiful Parisian lover Maria Cosway, and the brewing Terror of the French Revolution, this film is a true and unique, classy feast for the eyes and mind---for viewers of elevated taste and learning only; cretins and historical ignoramuses should seek their entertainment elsewhere.
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Too slow, too long
richard-178727 August 2011
I've enjoyed several earlier Merchant-Ivory films very much: Remains of the Day, Howard's End, Maurice. But this one, though it has all the same basic ingredients - director, script writer - left me flat. It moved far too slowly, and never caught me up in Jefferson the man - though I have always found Jefferson very interesting. We never see any conflict in Jefferson between his supposed vows to stay faithful to his first, deceased wife and then his feelings for either Maria Cosway or Sally Hemmings. Indeed, we really get very little sense of his feelings for Hemmings at all, and certainly they would have been complex. Nor do we ever learn why Jefferson's older daughter wants to convert to Catholicism - that, too, given her upbringing, would have caused conflicting emotions. There is also very little connect between Jefferson and the Revolution getting underway. The costumes and sets are all very beautiful, of course, and no doubt very well-researched. But I got no sense of Jefferson from this movie. (I leave to one side the issue of whether Jefferson did actually father Hemmings' children; this isn't a documentary, so that's not relevant.)
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Sally Hemmings the Sideshow
aep002-125 July 2009
The DNA test is inconclusive, there is just as much likelihood that Randolph Jefferson was the father. To make this the opening scene and a big part of the story is a travesty and worthy of tabloid press not a historical drama.

"Historians have the wrong Jefferson. Hyland, an experienced trial lawyer, presents the most reliable historical evidence while dissecting the unreliable, and in doing so he cuts through centuries of unsubstantiated charges. The author reminds us that the DNA tests identified Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest child, as being merely the descendant of a "Jefferson male." Randolph Jefferson, the president's wayward, younger brother with a reputation for socializing among the Monticello slaves, emerges as the most likely of several possible candidates."
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Mixed Feelings
tyliter9 January 2020
I have to say I'm not 100% sure how to rate this movie. On the one hand there were several things I didn't like. #1 where were the subtitles? For someone well versed in French history it would be easy to deduce what is happening, but someone who isn't would be very confused. Subtitles would've been an easy remedy. #2 the the ages (or appearance of age) was inaccurate. Surprisingly I thought Nick Notle did well, something I didn't expect, but M. Conway was too old, G. Paltrow was too old, Louis XVI & M. Antoinette were too old & Lafayette looked too old though the acting was well done so, despite his age, I was happy with the performance. #3 The historical events were glossed over which was very disappointing. Having said all that, I must say I'm pleasantly surprised that this movie was made, ESPECIALLY considering how little was known at the time (1995) & much of what was portrayed was still considered speculation & rumor. Because of this I've given it a better rating than I initially planned. I think something should be said for a film company that is willing to make a movie that is so controversial, though I don't know that I agree with how it was portrayed.
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Schizophrenic experience
vitachiel22 August 2019
Aside from historical correctness, bias issues and topic choice, let's start with evaluating the movie as though it was purely fictional. The biggest problem is the vast scope of storylines. Too many plots and subplots make this movie quite messy, the more so because these storylines are completely intermixed (which is needed to retain chronology). There's Jefferson's encounters with the French royalty and nobility, the romantic liaison between Jefferson and Maria, the discussions on slavery, the experiences of Sally and James, Jefferson's affair with Sally, Patsy's dealings with Catholicism, Patsy's dealings with her father's affairs, Patsy's dealings with slavery... All merged into a 90-minute feature film. Not that it's hard to follow, it's just very tedious to be warped from one storyline to the second to the third in a matter of minutes.

Kudos however to the casting director. All the actors are very much perfect for their jobs. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, who, as a self-pitied whiner, stays very close to her own self.
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