Jefferson in Paris is a 1995 American/French historical drama film directed by James Ivory. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a semi-fictional account of Thomas Jefferson's tenure as the Ambassador of the United States to France prior to his Presidency, and his alleged relationships with artist Maria Cosway and slave Sally Hemings.
A lonely widower, Jefferson enters into a love affair with beautiful Anglo-Italian painter and musician Maria Cosway. Although she is willing to sacrifice everything for him, his attachments to the memory of his wife, to whom he promised never to marry again, and to his two daughters, especially the elder, possessive Patsy, prevent him from fully committing to the relationship. At the same time, he finds himself attracted to younger daughter Polly's nurse Sally Hemings, his wife's half-sister sired by her father with one of his mulatto slaves. Sally's brother James is in Paris as well, learning to prepare French cuisine for Monticello. When George Washington offers Jefferson the post of Secretary of State, he accepts and prepares to sail home with his family. But James, having enjoyed his freedom in Paris, is not willing to return to the United States and urges Sally to remain with him. It is only when Jefferson promises he will give James and Sally - who is pregnant with Jefferson's child - their freedom that they consent to leave with him.
The film was budgeted at $14 million. It grossed $2,461,628 in the US .
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times observed, "The film is lavishly produced and visually splendid, like all the Merchant-Ivory productions. But what is it about? Revolution? History? Slavery? Romance? No doubt a lot of research and speculation went into Jhabvala's screenplay, but I wish she had finally decided to jump one way or the other. The movie tells no clear story and has no clear ideas."
In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers said, "After a literate and entertaining roll (A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day), the team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala drops the ball with this droopy, snail-paced prigs-in-wigs movie. It doesn't help that Nick Nolte is such a lox as Thomas Jefferson . . . [He] seems to think that playing an introspective man means impersonating a wax dummy."
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called the film "dull, sluggish and unfocused . . . [it] tries telling three or four stories at once, can't decide which is most important and winds up stubbing its well-manicured toes" and added, "Coiffed in a strawberry blond ponytail that makes him look like sitcom star Brett Butler, and surrounded by opulent sets and costumes that look like early bids for Oscar nominations, Nolte makes a noble, sympathetic effort to humanize a historical figure, but never manages to look anything other than tight, corseted and out of his element."
In Variety, Todd McCarthy said the film "touches upon much significant history, incident and emotion but, ironically, lacks the intrigue and drama of great fiction . . . as the opportunity for drama increases with the onset of Jefferson's affair with Sally and the buildup toward the Revolution, the narrative becomes more dispersed and murky. Things happen . . . but they don't weave and dovetail in the surprising, intricate and telling ways they can in first-class fiction, some of Merchant Ivory's recent films included . . . The strong points of director James Ivory's approach here are his attentiveness to wonderful detail . . . The downside is that Ivory's reticence makes it additionally tough for an emotionally remote figure like Jefferson to come alive onscreen."