By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
For many people, Thomas Jefferson remains an enigmatic historical icon, a figure whose chief importance lies in his representation on the U.S. nickel. Certain facts about his life, that he was once the American ambassador to France and that he not only owned slaves but fathered some as well, remain lesser-known trivia.
"Jefferson in Paris," the new Merchant Ivory ("Howard's End") production, depicts the years 1784 to 1789. Jefferson (Nick Nolte) lives in Paris, serving as an adviser to French political leaders who want to turn France away from its corrupted monarchy and towards a democratic form of government. The stirrings of the French Revolution rumble in the background, and Jefferson soon develops an affair with a beautiful Anglo-Italian painter, Maria Crosway (Greta Scacchi).
While in Paris, Jefferson is waited on by one of his slaves, James Hemings (Seth Gilliam), hoping that he will learn the art of French cooking and bring his skills
back to Monticello. However, James soon realizes that slavery is illegal in France, and despite Jefferson's efforts to keep him in the dark, James soon begins to question his position.
"Jefferson in Paris" is classic Merchant Ivory (the producer is Ismail Merchant, the director is James Ivory). It focuses on the clash of cultures, Jefferson's aristocratic individualism against France's cultural refinement and social mores. The film is leisurely and dialogue-heavy, with a plot that hinges more on character than action, and the setting is recreated with painstaking care for decorative authenticity.
The film boasts many inspired performances, including Simon Callow ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") as Richard Cosway, an eccentric socialite, and Thandie Newton ("Interview with the Vampire") as Sally Hemings, James Hemings' sister and also a slave of Jefferson's. Scacchi ("The Player") is sophisticated and moving with her portrayal of a woman caught between her life in Europe and Jefferson's promise to take her to America.
The weak link is, surprisingly enough, Nick Nolte in the title role. Nolte ("Cape Fear," "Prince of Tides") is a expressive actor who works best with impassioned characters. Jefferson is depicted as a reserved man who hides his true feelings. While he doesn't deliver a bad performance, Nolte just isn't subtle enough to convey Jefferson's private thoughts, and he mostly comes across as emotionally rigid.
On the whole, "Jefferson in Paris" is quite enjoyable. Its probing of a figure intrinsic to our national heritage is intriguing. The film shows Jefferson as an idealistic American who relishes European culture but threatens to indulge in contradictory behavior to the ideals he espouses. The film's exploration of democratic ideals and its evocation of a particular time and place make it a fascinating presentation.
"Jefferson in Paris" is showing at Century Gateway 12, 792-9000.
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