After a literate and entertaining roll (A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day), the team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala drops the ball with this droopy, snail-paced prigs-in-wigs movie. It doesn’t help that Nick Nolte is such a lox as Thomas Jefferson. Jhabvala’s script, her first period film not based on a book, catches the third-president-to-be during the time he served as minister to France (1784 to 1789) and soaked up the culture and the high life while revolution threatened to bring it all crashing down. Though the team does its customarily sterling job in capturing the opulent detail, the characters stubbornly refuse to come to life.
Nolte seems to think that playing an introspective man means impersonating a wax dummy. His debates with French intellectuals about slavery — Jefferson had more than 100 slaves at home in Monticello — produce no heat. Neither, crushingly, do his romantic entanglements. Jefferson’s flirtation with the married painter and musician Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) is more in his head than in his heart, despite his flowery letters to the lady. Even the hints about mutual incestuous longings between the widowed Jefferson and his eldest daughter, Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), are oddly muted.
Thandie Newton gives the film’s liveliest performance as Sally Hemings, the young slave some scholars believe carried on a secret affair with Jefferson and bore him seven children. The film buys into that hotly contested notion — it’s the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala version of JFK — but shies away from showing Sally doing more than unbuckling Big Tom’s shoe. The timid approach robs the film of passion and point. Jefferson in Paris catches a public figure with his pants down, and then can’t bear to look.