An American in limbo

'Jefferson in Paris', the latest offering from Merchant-Ivory, seems to point an accusing finger at the third president of the United States. Or does it? Adam Mars-Jones wishes it would make up its mind

The new Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris, written as usual by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, has been much criticised in America for its assertion that Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with (and indeed six children by) Sally Hemings, a slave he inherited at the time of his marriage. If the film does have an element of the snide, it is not through any intention on the part of the makers, but because of the incoherence of their project.

Jefferson's years in Paris as his country's ambassador, 1784-1789, could hardly have been more critical for France, and the result is an unsatisfactory double focus for the film. There is some pageantry, even a whiff of historical epic, in this exploration of a great man's private life. Sometimes the two intersect pleasingly, as when, for instance, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, processing with all the pomp that Jefferson finds politically and personally repugnant, stop to chat to him charmingly, and ask his daughter's name. More often, we see recreations of scenes Jefferson has not witnessed but is describing in letters and reports, or else encounters with figures who mean more to us than to him: an evening at Dr Mesmer's, for instance, or Guillotin demonstrating his humane invention at the dinner table.

At one point Ivory shows the King receiving political news while out hunting, with dogs in the foreground of the image fighting over scraps. This is a perfectly decent "significant" shot of an old-fashioned kind - the dogs representing the future of France - but it hardly belongs in Jefferson in Paris, which, at 140 minutes, would gain from pruning. The significance of the Revolution in Jefferson's life is essentially that he got it wrong, predicting a smooth transition on the false analogy of the American experience.

Jefferson was 41 when he went to Paris, and a widower. It isn't an obvious role for Nick Nolte, but he rises to it. His Jefferson is, for a diplomat, not particularly diplomatic: he has no warmth of manner, no small talk and not even a smile. His conviction of the superiority of America to Europe is unconcealed. He is happy to discuss the principles of liberty with progressive elements of the French aristocracy, though he glosses over the issue of slavery ("The special relationship we have with our negroes").

Jefferson's manner warms in his relationship with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), and becomes virtually passionate. Her husband, played by Simon Callow, is complaisant, but his obligingness has its limits: at one rather delicious moment, he reminds his wife of her role by adjusting the hang of her wig and blowing imaginary fluff from her bosom - with the air of a proud householder dusting a prized mantelpiece.

The future President of the United States so far forgets himself as to make a marital promise to Maria, despite his vow to his dying wife not to remarry. In his exhilaration he leaps over a pile of logs, falls and breaks his wrist.

Such an accident would obviously attenuate ardour. A superstitious man might see it as a punishment. A more introspective man might see it as the consequence of attempting an exploit suited to a younger man. But in fact this marks the point at which the film revokes its implied promise to put us more and more inside the great man's head. From now on, we see inside him less and less.

Jefferson's manner to Maria changes abruptly, but he gives her no explanation. Maintaining this over time must indicate an extraordinary degree of moral obtuseness: the assumption that guilt over breaking a promise to a dead woman is best assuaged by doing the same wrong to a living one. Might it be, though, that the promise to Maria has been invented by the screenwriter, while the protestations of friendly affection are historical, but seem distortedly hypocritical in the light of the invention?

If the screenplay makes no excuses for Jefferson, it abets him by removing Maria from the story. First she's in London, then when she does return to Paris, apparently wanting a confrontation, it is far from clear where she stays and why she does not in fact confront him. By the time she gets round to it, the situation has changed, and she realises it. Jefferson gets involved with Sally (Thandie Newton), who has come out from Virginia as an escort for his young daughter Polly. The ironies here are not small: a champion of democracy who owns slaves starts to behave proprietorially towards one of them in a country that is just throwing off the tyranny of property. The historical Jefferson was one of the great minds of his century, but the one in the film has no self-awareness at all. For instance, when he denounces the Abbess of the convent where his elder daughter has been lodged for allowing her to convert, he is reminded that the religious freedom of which he makes so much includes the freedom to be religious. He replies with a statement, the ironies of which seem to miss him: "Independence is not a toy to be played with by children, but the privilege of a fully matured mind."

The Sally we see, vivacious, direct, credulous, seems to fit the stereotype of black person as child - but then she is a child, who became pregnant by Jefferson, according to the film, at 15. The only time, though, that the subject of her age comes up in Jefferson's presence, he doesn't know it. Likewise we are privy to no moment at which Jefferson reacts to the news of the pregnancy. In this way, the film alternates between moral impalements of Jefferson, and rather baffling lettings off the hook.

This cycle of indictment and evasion doesn't produce good history, or good drama. If Thomas Jefferson did have six children by Sally Hemings, it would be nice to think that he was happy with her, and if she did indeed choose not to be emancipated from him then perhaps she was happy where she was, but James Ivory's camera, lingering outside bedroom doors or cutting primly away from an intimate scene at a moment of contact, presents sexuality as a dirty secret. The high-minded look of the film, combined with Jhabvala's uncharacteristically muddled handling of the story, makes for a distinctly queasy experience.

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