Rated: PG-13 Reviewed by: Frank Release date: March 31, 1995 Released by: Touchstone Pictures
Chronicling the years 1784 to 1789 which Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte) spent as the American ambassador to France, this film should have been a stunning costume drama with the backdrop of the French Revolution. Rather it is a number of plots none of which is completely satisfactory.
The first plot is the French Revolution. Next comes Jefferson's attempt to explain slavery and that "All men are created equal." Another is Jefferson's daughter's repulsion at his affaire with a slave girl and her attempted conversion to Catholicism. Next is Jefferson's affair with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) and added to this is a minor slave revolution. In 14 hours all these plots could not be satisfied and Jefferson's five years in Paris would have been the death of him.
Nolte acts as if he wishes he were back in California and not in Paris. Scacchi is quite credible. Her work is believable and enjoyable to watch. Thandie Newton as the young slave girl shows extraordinary skill at her role of a 15-year-old who is fearful of Jefferson, knows her place, and enjoys his attention. Seth Gilliam plays her brother James, a young black man who has learned enough that he demands his freedom while he lives in Paris.
I found the 18th century politics in the French court the most interesting part of the film. The hangers on, the bad advice givers, the leader who is sincere but not able to listen to his people, the cavorting for recognition at demand parties and the flirting and sexual activity among the members of the ruling class sound as much like today as the French court of Louis XVI.
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