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DOUBTFUL THOMAS

If you're looking for a spark of life in Team Merchant-Ivory's fatal collision with American history, Jefferson in Paris, skip right past the hotly disputed moment at which the author of the Declaration of Independence beds a fourteen-year-old slave girl from Old Virginny. That's this straight-faced movie's lone comic moment--and it's not even intended to get a laugh. Certainly not from Gary Hart, who screened the thing in Denver a couple of weeks back.

No, the film's pinnacle, difficult to recall amid two-plus hours of tedium and folly, is achieved at a lavish late-eighteenth-century banquet table, where the dawdling aristocrats of Louis XVI's court are busy decapitating stalks of asparagus with a miniature version of Monsieur Guillotine's clever new invention. Tres amusante! Little do the diners know that their heads are next.

Come to think of it, little do we know.
Those paragons of literary moviemaking, producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have this time stepped in something unpleasant down at the bookshop--Fawn M. Brodie's controversial 1974 work Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. It's an attempt to legitimize the folklore, first generated in the penny press of the early nineteenth century, that good ol' Tom fathered four or five children with his teenaged slave Sally Hemings. However, a dozen other Jefferson scholars have rejected the book as the academic equivalent of tabloid TV.

Merchant-Ivory buys Brodie wholesale, and whatever uplift these decorous moviemakers bestowed upon their audiences with Howards End or The Remains of the Day has suddenly evaporated. Their inquiry into the divided mind of a great democratic idealist who was also a slave-owner--the larger issue here--means to be as high-toned as all get-out. But the film takes sleazy glee in ambushing the third president of the United States on--what else?--the "character issue." Good philosopher? You bet. But he's sure got a rocket in his pocket.

As usual, the package is prettily wrapped. The period costumes and settings are impeccable, and we even get to behold a two-quill contraption (heavily symbolic of the hero's own duality, I'm afraid) that enables Jefferson to write on one sheet of paper while simultaneously creating a copy on a second.

In the person of a ponytailed (and slightly uncomfortable) Nick Nolte, the recently widowed, 41-year-old Jefferson we meet here has just arrived in decadent, libertine Paris to replace Benjamin Franklin as ambassador to France. The year is 1784. America is free, and the French Revolution, inspired in part by Jefferson's notions of human liberty, is starting to percolate. The fops and fools and romantic adventurers of the court take note of the American visitor, but he regularly deflates their continental pretensions with brilliant democratic aphorisms. Hey, we didn't put his face on the nickel for nothing.

Meanwhile, writer Jhabvala, a proud researcher, passes out a couple of nuggets en route to disaster. Because the fledgling American government is almost broke, Jefferson has to hit up Dutch bankers to pay off our war debts to the French. We get an eyeful of Greta Scacchi as Maria Cosway, the uprooted English noblewoman eager to chuck her marriage of convenience for Thomas and Virginia. We also get an earful of Gwyneth Paltrow as Jefferson's snippy daughter Patsy, who puts her father's stated belief in religious freedom to a stern test.

But halfway through, Merchant-Ivory turns into the crew from Hard Copy. Coquettish Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton) arrives from America to care for Jefferson's younger daughter, Polly, and before you can say "Monticello," the future president has her in the rack. Unfortunately, both Newton and Seth Gilliam (who plays Sally's uppity brother, James) are also called upon to bug their eyes and revive the "I scared, massa!" school of black movie diction. The period may be the 1780s, but puh-leeeze.

Amid all this shucking and jiving and leering miscegenation, Nick--er, Jefferson--is revealed as "complex." Which is to say, hypocritical. He ventilates about freedom but balks when Patsy says she wants to convert and become a nun. He says all men are created equal but acts like any other paternalistic Virginia pig when it comes to his own slaves. He...well, you get the idea.

Jefferson in Paris clearly believes it's full of fascinating ideas, fetching ironies and pointed historical insights. But in the end--which is a long, long time in coming--it keeps drawing us down into low-rent scandal, a neighborhood Merchant-Ivory doesn't know very well. Even if you forget its disservice to history, this dull, long, wrongheaded picture shows what happens when Masterpiece Theatre meets Mandingo. The bright side is that the self-appointed guardians of high culture suddenly look more foolish than they ever dreamed--as if Chaplin had kicked them in the pants.

 
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