It was the first portrayal in film of Sally Hemings, and at the time some mainstream historians disputed Jefferson's relationship with her. Since then a 1998 DNA study found a match between the male lines of Jefferson and Hemings descendants, and the historic consensus has shifted to acknowledging that Jefferson likely had a nearly 40-year liaison with Hemings and was the father of all her children, four of whom survived and were freed.
Set in the period 1784–1789, the film portrays Jefferson when he was US minister to France at Versailles before the French Revolution. French liberals and intellectuals hope he will lead them away from the corruption of the court of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and toward a more democratic form of government. Although deploring the poverty of the common people, he embraces the riches of French culture and civilization. It is his first time abroad, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to extend his knowledge of liberal arts and science while absorbing the refinements France has to offer.
A lonely widower, Jefferson develops a close friendship with Maria Cosway, a beautiful (and married) Anglo-Italian painter and musician. Although she becomes increasingly devoted to him, he is attached to his memory of his late wife, to whom he promised that he would not remarry, and to his two younger daughters, especially the elder, possessive Patsy. He becomes attracted to Sally Hemings, the enslaved maid and companion of his younger daughter Polly. Three-quarters white in ancestry, she is his late wife's half-sister. Their father had taken Sally's slave mother as a concubine after he was widowed for the third time; Sally is the sixth of their children. Sally's enslaved brother James Hemings is also in Paris, learning to be a French chef for Jefferson at 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 unwilling 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 return with him.
The film was shot on location in Paris, at the Desert de Retz and the Palace of Versailles. The scenes at the Desert reenact the actual visit made by Jefferson and Cosway in September 1787. Many of French supporting cast are members of Comédie-Française. It premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
Antonio Sacchini's opera Dardanus appears in the film. Also Marc-Antoine Charpentier' "Leçons de ténèbres", performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Sandrine Piau, Sophie Daneman, and Jory Vinikour. Arcangelo Corelli's La Folia is performed by Nolte, Scacchi, and Paltrow; however, the soundtrack CD is re-dubbed by others. Although Gwyneth Paltrow studied harpsichord for the film, her playing is dubbed by Jory Vinikour, including pieces by Jacques Duphly and Claude Balbastre. Scacchi's performance of Maria Cosway's song, "Mormora," was dubbed.
The film was budgeted at $14 million. It grossed $2,473,668 in the US.Nick Nolte ..... Thomas Jefferson
Gwyneth Paltrow ..... Patsy Jefferson
Estelle Eonnet ..... Polly Jefferson
Thandie Newton ..... Sally Hemings
Seth Gilliam ..... James Hemings
Todd Boyce .... William Short
Nigel Whitmey .... John Trumbull
Nicolas Silberg .... Monsieur Petit
Catherine Samie .... Cook
Lionel Robert .... Cook's Helper
Greta Scacchi ..... Maria Cosway
Simon Callow ..... Richard Cosway
Lambert Wilson ..... Marquis de Lafayette
Elsa Zylberstein ..... Adrienne de Lafayette
William Moseley .... George Washington de Lafayette
Jean-Pierre Aumont ..... d'Hancarville
Anthony Valentine .... British Ambassador
Michael Lonsdale ..... Louis XVI
Charlotte de Turckheim ..... Marie-Antoinette
Damien Groëlle ..... The Dauphin
Louise Balsan ..... Madame Royal
Valérie Toledano ..... Madame Elizabeth
Vernon Dobtcheff ..... King's Translator
Nancy Marchand ..... Madame Abbesse
Jessica Lloyd ..... Julia
Daniel Mesguich .... Mesmer
Thibault de Montalembert .... Assistant
William Christie .... Conductor
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt .... Dardanus
Ismail Merchant .... Tipoo Sultin's Ambassador
Vincent Cassel .... Camille Desmoulins
James Earl Jones ..... Madison Hemings
Beatrice Winde ..... Mary Hemings
Tim Choate .... Reporter
In her review in the New York Times, Janet Maslin called the film
"an extraordinary spectacle . . . the rare contemporary film that's both an entertainment and an education, despite some glaring misimpressions that are sure to spark heated debate . . . The biggest problem with [the film] is at the basic editing level, with such abrupt jumps between diverse scenes that the film's momentum remains choppy. Overshadowed by its own ambition and not-quite-ironic pageantry, Jefferson in Paris doesn't quite come to life . . . Casting Nick Nolte as a Founding Father may sound like this film's riskiest choice, but in fact it makes solid sense. Beyond having the right physical stature for the imposing, sandy-haired Jefferson, Mr. Nolte captures the man's vigor and his stiff sense of propriety. He may not adapt effortlessly to the role of an intellectual giant, but his performance is thoroughly creditable . . . The film makers fare less successfully with Maria Cosway . . . Ms. Scacchi, the film's big casting problem, makes her so bloodless and prettily artificial that the romance never seems real. There's much more spice in Ms. Newton's captivating performance as Sally Hemings, even if she gives this teen-age slave girl the unexpected fiddle-dee-dee flirtatiousness of a Scarlett O'Hara."
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."
Since a 1998 DNA study found a match between the male lines of Jefferson and Hemings descendants, the historic consensus has shifted to acknowledging that Jefferson likely had a nearly 40-year relationship with Hemings and was the father of all her children, four of whom survived and were freed.