Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Jefferson in Paris (1995) >>

1) Only in the very last scenes does the movie begin to focus on something: the pathetic absurdity of Sally Hemings’s place in the Jefferson household. For some mild familiarity her face is slapped by Patsy Jefferson. It’s one teen-aged girl slapping another, a mistress slapping her slave, and a girl slapping her own aunt: for Sally is the illegitimate daughter of Patsy’s grandfather, Thomas’s father-in-law. Not only do we know this but both girls know it, too. And the final moment is poignant: Sally, offered her freedom, bursts into tears because she is bewildered, even terrified, by the possibility of freedom in a land that has no use for free blacks. But, by this time, it is too late to make this movie be about Sally. The last close-up of her tear-stained face is moving but frustrating. It's a fragment of a movie we haven't seen. (Richard Alleva)

2) By exploiting the dramatic value of disputed events in the private life of a public figure, Merchant and Ivory have traded on a great reputation in the act of traducing it. They may have laid claim to the name, but they missed the substance of the man. (Joyce Appleby)

3) The slavery issue becomes personalized in the last hour of the film with the arrival of Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), the slave who accompanies the youngest Jefferson daughter to Paris and who may have been the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. Frustrated in his pursuit of Mrs. Cosway, Jefferson turns to Sally for companionship. The script is notably unconvincing on this point. Sally is an inept, intrusive teen-ager with little apparent ability to relate to the brilliant, somewhat dour, tortured Mr. Jefferson. With her pregnancy the story doesn't end; it simply stops. Nothing is really resolved. (Richard Blake)

4) The fact that one of our nation's most articulate, indisputably heroic founding geniuses is played by an actor so oafish he could easily be mistaken for a delivery man accidentally stepping into the frame, makes the insult to the real Thomas Jefferson easier actually because it is so unintentionally comical. (William Hamilton)

5) Does Jefferson's treatment of Sally Hemings establish his racism or his instinctive colorblindness? (Hal Hinson)

6) The seduction scene itself is carefully ambiguous; as Sally lingers over the sleeping Jefferson, she brushes an imaginary fly from his face and his now powerful hand shoots up to grab her wrist. Seduction? Rape? End scene. . . . as a serious film about race in America, the movie has less than nothing to say. (Andy Pawelczak)

7) Jefferson in Paris catches a public figure with his pants down, and then can't bear to look. (Peter Travers)

8) Most bizarrely, the movie nearly ignores the crucial paradox, that of the liberal icon Jefferson’s purportedly taking teenaged slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) as mistress. Poor Sally’s problematical existence is presumably the excuse for the story, which is told by her freed son (James Earl Jones, whose famous diction makes his “slave grammar” ridiculous). But this Sally is a simple-minded and sometimes sly flirt (the word “pickaninny” painfully comes to mind) incapable of inspiring such personally taboo passion. The resonance of Sally’s being half-sister to Jefferson’s sainted dead wife is unexplored. The drama this movie so obviously avoids—the rivalry of two intelligent, conventionally unacceptable women (the married Cosway and the black Hemings) for Jefferson's soul—is the only one that might have mattered. (Eve Zibart)

9) The downside is that Ivory's reticence makes it additionally tough for an emotionally remote figure like Jefferson to come alive onscreen. Not that one wants to see the future third president of the United States thrashing around in the sack, but Ivory is so discreet about his protagonist's amorous activities that one never knows how physical his relations with Maria ever become, nor precisely when things begin with Sally. As someone says of Jefferson’s heart, “He wears it under a suit of armor,” and one only rarely hears it beating. (Todd McCarthy)

10) Had the Merchant-Ivory team chosen to make that forbidden, mixed-race love their focus, and not gotten sidetracked with all of Jefferson's silly mooning over the pretentious Maria Cosway, then ``Jefferson in Paris'' might have come to life. (Edward Guthmann)

11) As beautifully staged as all Merchant-Ivory films, "Jefferson in Paris" is nevertheless a disaster, intellectually infuriating and thoughtlessly racist. (Eve Zibart)

12) Hemings is played by Thandie Newton as a demure, lovely, flirtatious spitfire who would rather stay with Jefferson than be free. (He offers her freedom when her brother points out that in France slavery is outlawed, but she tearfully declines.) This fudges the issue, sullying Jefferson’s status as hero in a movie that allows him to refer to the responsibility of taking care of slaves as something like taking care of family. Granted, this is gray territory historically, but he was a slave-owner and that’s difficult to defend under any circumstances. And Jefferson isn’t made to appear any nobler when he sleeps with Sally but strings the unsuspecting Maria along. This movie would have had a chance of being interesting had it been about Sally Hemings. Perhaps then the filmmakers would have thought it important to make Jefferson appear to be the man capable of all his fabled accomplishments, a man who might possibly be interesting enough to attract a 15-year-old spitfire. (Barbara Shulgasser)

13) The love stories are presented with gingerly discretion. Jefferson's affair with Maria is all arch, twittering banter in an antique style; nothing in it elevates their pulses (or the audience's). Hemings is presented as a wise, if untutored, child, more of a nursemaid to Jefferson than a believably sexual being. It's hard to see what he saw in either of them, and the script does not provide any fully developed scenes of dramatic conflict between them. Even Jefferson's endless intellectual curiosity is seen more as an eccentricity than a vital force--like his sexuality, muted and eventually strangled in fastidious gentility. (Richard Schickel)

14) Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory’s historical drama actually ensures that Thomas Jefferson is read as a quiet intellectual statesman and a lonely widower whose emotions are awakened by the charm of a young girl who in Paris reminds him of home, of America and most tellingly of Monticello. In fact, rather than enforcing the droit de seigneur, Nick Nolte’s Jefferson succumbs to a bright young Sally, played by Thandie Newton, after an incredibly literate (historically, the relationship was primarily epistolary) but quite formal flirtation with married Maria Cosway. (Sharon Monteith 36)

15) Do we believe for a moment that Nick Nolte is the man who wrote a treatise “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”? I had trouble believing that he was a football coach at a real high school in “Prince of Tides.” But even the treatment of Jefferson’s love, Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), is strangely vacant. Jefferson falls for the wife of the evidently gay English painter Richard Cosway (beautifully performed by the underused Simon Callow), a woman who is a foolish, goofy, spoiled child. What the two see in each other must have been information that was cut out of a previous draft of the script. (Barbara Shulgasser)

16) Had Newton been given a chance, she might have saved “Jefferson in Paris” from its leaden pace and history-as-medicine tone. But she and Nolte have no love scenes, and the passion their characters are supposed to have shared in real life is only hinted at in Newton’s eyes, and symbolized in one telling moment: Sally’s removal of her “massah’s” boot. (Edward Guthmann)

17) Jefferson’s involvement with Hemings has inspired every kind of discourse, from prurient gossip to earnest scholarship, in the years since it became widely known. Ivory is no prude—films like “Quartet” and “Maurice” show him to be quite the opposite—but in keeping with the civilized sensibility that always distinguishes his work, he and his collaborators refuse to capitalize on obvious possibilities for sensationalism. Their treatment shows a Jefferson motivated more by loneliness, insecurity, and the simple need for affection than by the lusts and aggressions so eagerly traded in by conventional movies. The filmmakers also dodge the temptation to moralize about the relationship in racial terms; instead they portray both white master and black subordinate (not technically a slave while on French territory) as people of their time, reaching to one another for reasons too intricate to explain. (David Sterritt)

18) Rumors about the relationship have been a part of the Jefferson biography for so long that they could scarcely be considered revelatory. Yet by casting speculation as established fact, Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala unveil this supposed contradiction in the great man’s life as if the were outing him. At the same time, though, the filmmakers seem to want to have their hero and dis him too. Though they point to the relationship—which supposedly resulted in six offspring, all born into slavery—as proof that, indeed, the gods have feet of clay, when the actual romance begins, it’s depicted as being so natural and tender that he seems completely blameless. So what exactly is the point? Does Jefferson’s treatment of Sally Hemings establish his racism or his instinctive color-blindness? Unfortunately, the picture is so unfocused and tumbles so rapidly from one event to another that it’s difficult to tell. Also, while all this is going on, a great deal of screen time is spent on the romance between Jefferson and the beautiful painter and musician Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi)—a relationship that goes nowhere and reveals almost nothing about either party. (Hal Hinson)

19) Amazingly, Ivory allows an hour to elapse before Jefferson’s alleged mistress Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) actually appears. When she does, there is rather less sexual chemistry between her and her owner-employer than between Minnie and Mickey Mouse. We are allowed no glimpse of Sally’s feelings (duty? Respect? Lust? Resentment?). Nor does Jefferson seem to feel the slightest guilt at seducing a girl with the mental powers of a child, to whom he is effectively in loco parentis. The relationship -- whether true or fictitious -- might have been used to explore the sexual hypocrisy and racial politics of the 18th century. Instead, it is merely a bland backdrop to the main business of the film – which appears to be, as in all the worst Merchant Ivory pictures, a minute study of interior design. (Christopher Tookey)

20) “Jefferson in Paris,” the new film by the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has no doubt that Jefferson fathered at least one child by Sally Hemings. What the movie doesn’t know is what, if anything, he thought about it. The Jefferson in this movie is such a remote figure that you wonder, by the movie’s end, if he actually knew he was having sex at the time. (Roger Ebert)

21) Now, working with a much bigger budget (courtesy of Touchstone Pictures), they have produced “Jefferson in Paris.” And they have foundered. The money hasn’t been spent on enriching a story but on stuffing it full of unassimilated research. You can see what attracted the filmmaking team to this project. Jefferson, the Mona Lisa of American history, is, in their view, a man who deliberately repressed his deeper emotions and fit his life to a precise pattern. Drawn to an attractive and emotionally free-spending woman, he struggles to express his own emotions until circumstances and his own limitations drive him back into his shell. (Richard Alleva)

22) The film may, if it generates the audience, be controversial in another way as well. Mrs. Jabhvala, who wrote the screenplay and was inspired by a 1974 book by Fawn M. Brodie called “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History,” has made Jefferson’s supposed love affair with his slave Sally Hemings a main ingredient in the plot. The problem is that what “Jefferson in Paris” presents as vividly real, in the way only film has the power to, has long been viewed by most historians as a possibility at best or, very likely, pure invention. (Richard Bernstein)

23) What did the years Thomas Jefferson spent as our ambassador to France mean—to the two countries concerned, to history, to him? Are we supposed to care about his platonic dalliance with the pretty Maria Cosway, a painter married to a painter? Very well, then, make us feel, for example, what kept the game platonic, and at what cost to the players. Did his alleged concubinage with his slave girl Sally Hemings, said to have borne him several children, teach him something about love or slavery? And if not, why not? Is there anything to be learned from this story that encompasses both the aftereffects of the American Revolution and the beginning of the French one? Why were the enlightened French aristocrats who helped the former along of no use in forestalling or civilizing the latter? Again, what exactly was Jefferson’s relation to his slaves other than Sally? (And in making her the aggressor in the affair with her master, the film is politically correct but historically absurd.) How much did his oath of fidelity to his dying wife affect Jefferson’s subsequent affairs? And what was his relationship to his demanding elder daughter, Patsy, drawn equally intensely to her father and to becoming a nun? This, like much else, is at best dabbled in, at worst just dangled before us. So we briefly see an impassioned orator frenziedly inciting the crowd; only from the program can we tell he is Camille Desmoulins. From nothing can we tell his true significance. This is not just a case of not seeing the forest for the trees; it is a case of not seeing the trees for the moss on their bark. (John Simon)

24) Bereft of any flesh-and-blood honesty, the last half of the movie plays like a ludicrous PBS version of Mandingo, with Jefferson and Sally’s relationship cast as a metaphorical love dance between aristocrat and “noble savage.” Nolte starts out convincingly, portraying Jefferson as a passionate moralist with a gift for ironic pensees. His performance, though, never grows beyond this one refined note. Jefferson, for all his romantic idealism, remains a pleasant shell of a man. He seems hollowed out, and so, by the end, does “Jefferson in Paris.” (Owen Gleiberman)

25) The facts of Thomas Jefferson’s life though they may be, there’s a fundamental ugliness to them that no amount of pretty pictures can hide. History is history, but it’s the desire to give that ugliness the “Merchant Ivory” treatment which makes Jefferson in Paris a failure and an insult. (Gary Dauphin)

26) “It’s virtually impossible to recognize the historical Jefferson in this film,” Jordan says. “My concern is that film is such a powerful medium that bogus history drives out real history.” (David Holmstrom)

27) Newton’s performance stands out but for a jarringly bad reason: Her “Stepin Fetchit” accent and manner may be historically accurate, but it’s troubling to see that 1790s stereotype portrayed without some 1990s sensibility. Especially bothersome is a late scene when Jefferson – apparently depressed because he got dumped – is cheered by Sally’s high-stepping plantation dance, then pulls her into bed. One close-up, one line of dialogue is all Ivory would need to convey her sad acceptance of subservience or his growing guilt. Instead, we get an unsavory sense of Mandingo and hear the vaunted Merchant-Ivory film franchise come crashing to Earth. (Steve Persall)

28) Such flaws could easily be forgiven if “Jefferson in Paris” succeeded in its larger mission of capturing Jefferson the lover and slavemaster. Instead, this project is even more disappointing. Strong, masculine, and gallant of heart, Jefferson is oddly passive. Both Cosway and Hemings initiate the flirtations and practically seduce him. As improbable as such a turn of events might seem—he did, after all, make a pass at his best friend’s wife some years before—Merchant and Ivory present these presumed facts without any explication and context. Why is Jefferson so passive in these encounters? What is the attraction for him? Cosway and Hemings are, in the film, strikingly similar. Petite, cute, vivacious, flirtatious, and even a tad ditzy, Jefferson’s lovers are essentially emotionally immature teenage girls in their first flush of sexuality. Why are these women so attracted to this forty-something-year-old man, and what does it mean that he succumbs to their juvenile crushes? No explanation is offered. We are left to conclude that Jefferson was the strong silent type. (Darren Staloff)

29) Which leaves the sex, or what there is of it. Scacchi is almost entirely forgotten about, and the movie lurches off, broken-backed, after another plot entirely, this one concerning Jefferson’s sexual relations with his beautiful 15-year-old slave girl, Sally, who is also his dead wife’s half-sister. Racy stuff, in more ways than one, but the movie doesn’t spill the beans so much as spill them, apologise for having made a mess, and then make sure Jefferson’s reputation is cleaned up and left just how they found it. Sally is played by Thandie Newton, a beautiful actress who first appeared in the film “Flirting,” something she doesn’t seem to have stopped doing. Newton flirts as if it were the most innocent thing in the world which, properly done, is exactly what it is and she threatens to tease the picture into life once more, but there’s only so much she can do with a film as stiff-necked as this one. Ask yourself: How much erotic heat could you pack into the act of unbuckling Nick Nolte’s left shoe? This element of the film has generated something of a scandal in America, although heaven knows why. The only scandal I could make out was what passes for insight into Jefferson’s soul, which isn’t nearly as easy to unbuckle. In fact, it leaves the script in knows: “Wherever he is, he is what he is,” somebody concludes. Now they tell us. I don’t wish to be impertinent, but why if Jefferson is what he is, wherever he is did we bother following the man to Paris in the first place? Why not just a movie called Jefferson? (Tom Shone)

30) Still, considering that the relationship of slave and master is really the reason “Jefferson in Paris” was made, the filmmakers seem to have few ideas about the nature of their feelings. Does Sally “love” Jefferson, or only act seductively around him because of his importance and power? How does he feel about her? She is pregnant by the end of the film, but the sex scene is off-camera, and later as he discusses Sally’s plight, Jefferson seems to talk almost as if she might have gotten pregnant by herself. Newton’s performance is also hard to read; she adopts an odd dialect, behaves childishly, seems more like a caricature of an ingratiating slave than like a woman who apparently interested Jefferson so much that he went on to have several more children with her over a period of years. (Roger Ebert)

31) “We are making entertainment films for theaters,” explains James Ivory, director of the film. “We have a right to arrange our material in a way that is dramatic and artistic, and suits us, but it may not suit historians.” (David Holmstrom)

32) Merchant’s and Ivory’s Jefferson, however, is a perfectly rational and dispassionate master who never loses his temper or abuses his power. While this interpretation is strained when dealing with the challenge raised by James, it is absurd in its claim that fourteen-or fifteen-year-old Sally seduced her master and merrily bore his children. Surely the relationship was more complicated than that, with all the patriarchal and legal power on his side and nothing but youth and willingness to please on hers. Had Merchant and Ivory reversed the roles of seducer and seduced and had they included the presence of a strong woman like Abigail Adams, we might have glimpsed a Jefferson who could display passion and profound emotional engagement only in situations where he was completely in charge. The dangers and vulnerability of intimacy for him would have been limited by the disproportionate power and dominance he wielded in his domestic setting. We might, in short, have seen Jefferson as a powerful patriarchal slaveowner, a perhaps not unsurprising character after all. Instead, Merchant and Ivory give us a slightly more manly version of the usual pious portrait of a perfectly rational creature of the Enlightenment—Gray Cooper, in a periwig. (Darren Staloff)

33) Historians are right to dismiss the charge because it applies contemporary standards to a man who lived two centuries ago. As the Jefferson scholar Douglas Wilson points out, the question of why Jefferson held slaves gets us nowhere. The more interesting question is: Why did a man who inherited slaves and a fortune dependent upon them, and who lived in a society that was inured to slavery, decide at an early age that slavery was morally wrong and forcefully declare that it ought to be abolished? The answer is that Jefferson was exceptional, ahead of his time—but not completely free of it. (Brent Staples)

34) Jhabvala and Ivory aren’t out to rake Jefferson over the coals for his racial hypocrisies; they cast a cool, objective eye on both his moral lapses and his intellectual virtues. But judiciousness can take you only so far. What this movie needs is great scenes, and it doesn’t have any. When the Merchant Ivory team is at its best—in “Howards End” and “A Room With a View” – you can feel the passion behind the tasteful reserve. But there’s no moment in “Jefferson in Paris” when you can feel why the filmmakers had to tell this story. All dressed up, this elegant movie has nowhere to go. (David Ansen 69)

35) The Jefferson protectors need to take some deep breaths—and a cue or two from the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, author of the new movie “Jefferson in Paris.” It is stiff and ineffective as drama. But its virtue lies in recognizing that Jefferson would remain a towering figure regardless of what happened in his bedroom. In a world more interested in watching than reading, historical adjudications are becoming largely the territory of screenwriters, many of whom would have turned this story into a bodice-ripper. Ms. Jhabvala respects the subtleties in the story, suggests the love affair, but does not trump it up. The script seems to say: Perhaps they did, but for crying out loud, what’s the big deal? Jefferson would still be who he is, the country he fathered still history’s envy. The world as we know it would go right on turning. (Brent Staples)