Merchant Ivory has fallen under its own carriage wheels.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

Merchant Ivory has fallen under its own carriage wheels. With "Jefferson in Paris," the team has abandoned the terrain vividly delineated by some of England's best writers to venture into the unknowable: the emotional interior of an historic giant. Despite torch-lit parades and the best smiles modern dentistry can bestow, they have failed to illumine their subject.

Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have succeeded in doing the impossible: they have made Thomas Jefferson a boring man. Their bland creation spends his Paris years arranging the women in his life to suit his needs, and he has a devil of a time keeping them from tripping over each other. He is enchanted by Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), tended by his slave Sally (Thandie Newton), and bedeviled by his daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow). The film might better be titled "Jefferson and his Women."

While the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, master and slave, is an enduring puzzle, Merchant Ivory has bestowed the air of truth on something that is essentially historical gossip. They wrap their tabloid speculation in the sumptuous detail of the court of Louis XVI. It's "The National Enquirer" in buckles and bows.

Let's not be too quick to blame Nick Nolte. He shows his deference to Jefferson by talking very quietly and seriously. What's the poor man to do when his assignment is to portray America's great philosopher/writer/innovator/thinker/architect by delivering lines like: "I missed you....I kept having a debate between my head and my heart."

Nolte looks enough like Jefferson to pass, but he has affected a southern accent that relies for its authenticity on dropping word endings. No one in this extravaganza has captured the soft roll of a Virginian. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Jefferson's daughter by staring blankly at everyone under the most emotional of circumstances. Safer than talking, in this case.

Thundering carriages, soaring balloons, beautiful horses, ladies riding sidesaddle, a Smith and Hawken bench in the woods, and a cacophony of terrible accents. Silly dogs, silly huntsmen, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Lafayette in a dialogue of utter banality. Was that the French Revolution that just passed by the window? Will we hear "Hail to the Chief" as Sally slides into Tom's bed?

The Merchant Ivory team has taken a mythic figure, who continues to be the inspiration for the American psyche, and stripped him of any hint of the imagination or vision that drove him to become the architect of religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the University of Virginia, inspired architectural creations, and a blinding array of functional inventions. Such a man is not a bore.

With a body of superb work to their credit, Merchant Ivory will rebound, deservedly; but for now they will suffer the consequences of inflicting on a public full of anticipation an elaborate film that is a disappointment on all counts. May this be their only black hole.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 494
Studio : Touchstone
Rating : PG-13
Running Time: 2h16m

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