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Subj: Founders on Film #4 - Jefferson in Paris (1995)
Posted: Tue Aug 18, 2020 at 01:51:59 pm EDT (Viewed 50 times)
Jefferson in Paris (1995)
For some reason I had this title stuck in my head, I think I saw Siskel & Ebert review the film when it came out. When recently watching John Adams it touched upon Jefferson's time in Paris and I thought I should check out this movie for more of that story.
As the American Colonies are struggling for independence against England, Thomas Jefferson is sent on a long mission to Paris to enlist the aid of the French government against England. This movie has very little politics and is more about what life is like for these elites, and for the Americans in France as fish-out-of-water. Jefferson (Nick Nolte) arrives with his teenage daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) in tow. Patsy's mother has died making Jefferson a widower. He vows never to remarry and has enough to keep him busy with Patsy and two more daughters he left back in America and of course his work. Still, while mingling with the upper crust of French society he takes a liking to Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) and we witness their courtship. Patsy at first doesn't care for the coupling but grows closer to Maria later on.
When Jefferson hears that one of his daughters in the States has died, he sends for the other one to be brought to Paris immediately. She will only come with Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton), a slave on Jefferson's plantation whom she has grown attached to. There the trouble begins as Sally starts to flirt with Thomas and he reciprocates, leading to an affair between the two that is mostly hinted at. They later reveal that she is with child and that is something we did not see explicitly caused but Jefferson, at least in this version, takes responsibility.
This movie is a very nice production on many levels, as I take it is common for the Merchant-Ivory style of films. It was shot on location in France with a lot of period details and authenticity. It is filled with beautiful people and it's interesting that most of the cast are actually French actors. The version I saw didn't have subtitles so much of the dialogue in the film was lost on me when spoken in French.
On the other hand, like many biopics this film just touches on events of historical significance but doesn't really have much plot. There's not much of a character arc for Thomas, the romance between him and Maria ends rather abruptly and doesn't really feel complete, and the affair with Sally kind of comes out of nowhere and seems unexpected given the kind of man we're shown Thomas to be up until it happens.
The whole story is bookended by Madison Hemmings (James Earl Jones) telling a reporter that he is the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and this is his telling of the story. I think the question of Jefferson's affair had been an open rumor since the day it happened up until this movie came out, but it wasn't confirmed until a 1998 DNA analysis of the Hemmings and Jefferson lines.
Most of the acting in this movie was decent, Nick Nolte surprised me a little as the proper statesman. I haven't seen much of Greta Scacchi but she was in fine form here. Thandie Newton was cute and she always does a different accent in every movie I see her in.
Both this movie and John Adams show Jefferson using his polygraph or pantograph to duplicate hand-written letters. They just seem to love that period detail.
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