Cinema / American stifled in Paris

WE FILM critics hold these truths to be self-evident: that all Merchant-Ivory films are created equally bad, that they are endowed by their creators with certain inalienable Faults, and that among these are Lifelessness, Liberty prints and the pursuit of Prettiness. On Merchant- Ivory's last outing, The Remains of the Day, these vices became the film's subject, in an examination of stifled Englishness, so that we had the illusion of a well-crafted film. But Jefferson in Paris (12) takes one of the most intriguing figures in US history and turns him into a waxwork. Thomas Jefferson's ambassadorship to France (1784-1789) is full of historical fascination, as the philosopher of the New World confronts the Old in the full glow of its sunset, yet out of it Merchant-Ivory has made a movie which is a scurrilous lie and an unconscionable bore.

"Tell me about America," Jefferson (Nick Nolte) is asked. "The subject," he replies, "is as vast as the country itself." The same could be said of Jefferson - architect, inventor, musician, diplomat, farmer. Yet he was an uncinematic figure, his flamboyance, even boastfulness, in print, unmatched by his staid public manner. While in France he was largely negotiating and researching. The movie plays up an affair he had with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), wife of an English painter (Simon Callow), and invents one with a 15-year-old slave girl, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). But the film's idea of romantic passion is Sally's caressing of Jefferson's shoe-buckle. Its other dramatic peak comes when Jefferson dislocates his wrist. There is, of course, ample outlet for the Ivory trade in period detail: horse-drawn carriages clopping into courtyards, as servants, bearing fire-beacons, run ahead; opulent banquets; a ballet; a ball; a seance; the first feature-film sequences shot inside the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles; and some wonderfully inept evocations of mob riots, in which a fake head is carried on a pike and hordes of extras rhubarb like crazy. Each of these set-pieces is drearier than the last. Scenes are designed to show-case esoteric historical detail rather than advance the drama. We watch a man called Dr Guillotin demonstrate at a dinner party his new invention. Such look-and-learn film-making makes for watch- and- yawn viewing.

Much of the blame lies with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's feeble script. Her attempts to convey the ferment of ideas in Paris at the Enlightenment's eclipse are desultory. And the struggle in Jeffer- son's soul between passion and responsibility is bungled. Jefferson wrote a moving letter in the form of a dialectic between his heart and head. Jhabvala massacres that masterpiece and creates a thoroughly stilted piece of dialogue, by dividing the arguments between Jefferson and Cosway, under the guise of repartee.

Jhabvala and James Ivory plod along in their usual uncinematic way, with no conception of dramatic pacing, or of story-telling through images. You can rely on Ivory to hold each scene too long, for a few moments of heavy over-emphasis. Yet when he goes for a bit of cinematic invention - as in the ludicrous fade-outs which punctuated conversations in Howards End - you wish he hadn't, as it comes over as jarringly self-conscious. When Scacchi talks of her sisters being poisoned by their nanny, a flashback deadens the story's force.

Such a screenplay would thwart any cast's effort. Nick Nolte has the right rough-hewn physique for Jefferson, but the role is so underwritten that he can convey nothing of the man's joy, either in ideas or in illicit love. Thandie Newton has the hardest job of all, animating the slave girl. She is there to be sexually exploited, even though there is no evidence - other than the libels of a disappointed rival - that Jefferson had an affair with her. It's true that she was one of Jefferson's many slaves. But the film simplifies Jefferson's complex attitude to slavery. The erasing of his assault on it in the Decl- aration of Independence is mentioned, but not the attack that survives in the document's preamble. Nor is it made clear how progressive his passion for emancipation was. His views on race were deeply conservative, but that was typical of the time. By harping on about Jefferson's slave-ownership, Ivory thinks he is being revisionist, but is merely anachronistic.

Fiddling with facts is not necessarily a bad thing, if it reveals a greater dramatic truth (as In the Name of the Father did). What is appalling about Jefferson in Paris is how little it makes out of its massive inaccuracies. Flatly written, dully photographed, clumsily edited, and an hour too long (at 140 minutes), it's one of the most boring films of recent times.

John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (15) is another of those horror movies (like Misery and The Dark Half) which delve into the murky process of writing fiction. No, it has nothing to do with Martin Amis's dentistry. It's a study of what happens when fiction overthrows reality, and who gets to decide what reality is - the sane or the mad? Sam Neill plays, with tongue in cheek, an investigator hired to track down a missing horror author, whose books have a hypnotic hold on their vast readership. The best scenes are those in which the suavely cynical Sam is slowly sucked into the fictional world, screaming denial, as he bobs between waking and nightmare. Once he's inside the whirlpool, the shocks are fairly conventional.

Silent Fall (15) marks another stage in the falling off of Bruce Beresford, who, with films such as Breaker Morant, was once a force to be reckoned with. Richard Dreyfuss bumbles through his usual shtick as a psychiatrist who has to prise the solution to a murder out of an autistic boy-witness. A promising plot rapidly degenerates into preposterousness.

Cinema details: see Review, page 90.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing