Before he became president, Thomas Jefferson (Nolte) was ambassador to France for five years at the end of the 18th century. After the death of his first wife, he pledged never to love again, but in the course of working through his bereavement, grew steadily closer to his family, and especially one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (Newton).
After a series of much-loved, cork-in-too-tight, very English efforts, culminating in the critical and commercial smash The Remains Of The Day, good old Merchant-Ivory (and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) have expanded their horizons out of adapting literary darlings and into original screenplay territory. It has not been entirely successful.
In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson (Nolte) spent five years as US ambassador to Paris - five pretty amazing years to be there, no doubt, what with the Montgolfier brothers doing their ballooning thing, and the aristocracy lapping up the luxury as the peasants bay at the gate, keen to make the most of M. Guillotine's new invention. Jefferson has his own problems, too, what with Maria Cosway (Scacchi) causing mayhem with his promise to his deceased wife never to love another, his attraction to his 15-year-old slave girl (Newton) ending up being consummated in the sack (naturally off-camera), and his black man-slave James (Seth Gilliam) demanding wages, since slavery is frowned upon in France. These the movie, loosely, encompasses.
What the movie doesn't manage to do is to put flesh on Jefferson's bones for those who know simply that he was one of history's greatest figures. By casting the resolutely modern Nick Nolte and by attempting to "humanise" the man, the filmmakers have come terribly unstuck. To Americans, it looks like a deliberate debunking of the genius who co-wrote the Constitution To everyone else, it simply doesn't answer the big question: what made Jefferson special?
Of course it looks perfect, dripping with period detail, and with one of the greatest New World thinkers crashing into Europe as the old order disintegrates, the material is here for a fascinating tale. Add in the issues of sex, race and class, and you should really have a winner. But sadly, beyond the wigs, costumes and exquisite set design, its a vacant enterprise.
Jefferson's sterile, glossed-over relationship with the teenage Sally sums the whole thing up: it should be (and surely was) based on nothing but animal lust. And that is not a commodity readily present in the pristine world of Merchant Ivory.