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Nick Nolte's craggily handsome face, steely eyes, and whiskey-and-cigarettes voice are the epitome of ravaged old-movie grandeur. But in his heart, he's always been a character actor, not an icon.
Although resourceful directors have managed to use him that way--notably Walter Hill in 48 HRS. and Extreme Prejudice and Karel Reisz in Who'll Stop the Rain--when he slips into mysterious matinee-idol mode, he always seems to be champing at the bit, wanting something more, something deeper.
It's rare that a leading role grants Nolte the chance to fuse both aspects of his screen potential. He got close in The Prince of Tides as Tom Wingo, an emotionally wounded South Carolina football coach who managed to represent both the fate of macho men in the New Age '90s and the bruised but unbowed spirit ofthe white American Southerner.
Neighbors Won't Haze You
He gets close again in Jefferson in Paris, the new historical epic from the reliable Merchant-Ivory team about the years Thomas Jefferson spent in France as a United States ambassador. The part is a gold mine for Nolte, who's better than almost any working actor at fusing stoic manliness and submerged sensitivity, instinct and self-awareness.
With his distinctive block of a head hidden, for the most part, beneath a huge powdered wig, Jefferson isn't a terribly accessible figure for a historical epic. But Nolte's face is so suggestive that he can express emotions even when his character is at his most enigmatic. It's true, as another character observes, that Jefferson "wears his heart under a suit of armor," but thanks to Nolte, we can hear it faintly beating somewhere deep inside him.
If Nolte isn't transcendently great in the role, that's because the movie itself is deeply flawed. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's script is rich in details and incidents, but it never channels them into a propulsive narrative, and the longer this two-and-a-half hour movie goes on, the less sense it makes.
There seems to be a vast discrepancy between what Jhabvala and director James Ivory are interested in exploring and what the audience would naturally like to see. We're treated to a plethora of scenes exploring Jefferson's romantic life in the aftermath of his beloved wife's death, during which he was linked with the sexy spouse (Greta Scacchi) of a foppish British painter. We view Jefferson's coolly distant relationship with his troubled oldest daughter, Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who accompanied him to Paris and studied at a convent, and his impatience with the pretensions of French aristocratic life.
We're also taken to various key locations--an opera house, the imperial court, the Parisian streets during a bloody peasant uprising--and immersed in the language and concerns of the time. Some of these are wonderfully vivid, and others are merely interesting. (Still others are staged in a dry way that undercuts their potential as spectacle; a peasant-organized lynching of an aristocrat is filmed with all the passion of a road crew patching up potholes.)
The most fascinating aspect of the film is its investigation of Jefferson's personal hypocrisy--the distance between what he said and wrote about politics and morality and how he conducted his own life. A beehive of furious contradictions, Jefferson was a brilliant defender of the concept of individual liberty, one of the prime instigators of the rebellion against Britain in Revolutionary-era America, and a chief architect of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet as anyone who's waded hip-deep into the political correctness debate can tell you, this inarguably great man was also a slave owner.
While he fought for freedom during war and peacetime, at home and abroad, he also maintained a roster of servants at his Virginia plantation and took one of his favorites, a bright young man named James (Seth Gilliam), to stay with him abroad. When Jefferson's youngest daughter dies back in Virginia, Jefferson brings his middle daughter and her personal slave, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton, who was astonishingly good in John Duigan's teen romance Flirting and is equally fine here), over to Paris.
Because Jhabvala and Ivory aren't prone to splashing lurid details all over the screen, what happens next is a bit murky; the gist is that Jefferson and Sally become lovers, and that their relationship is framed as a harbinger of American racial uprisings yet to come.
In cinematic terms, this is the most emotionally volatile and widely debated aspect of Jefferson's life, and it would make for a fantastically strong, simple story if the filmmakers had chosen to explore it more thoroughly. It's better to pick one element of a person's character and let it stand in for many others than to attempt to cover every single dramatic base in 150 minutes flat. After all, no one film--or play or book or opera, for that matter--can hope to encapsulate every shading of a person's life.
Not that Jhabvala and Ivory don't try. Like their other movies--but even more so--Jefferson in Paris is obsessed with the minutiae of clothing, manners, body language, architecture, and furnishings, sometimes at the expense of drama.
But when the film sticks to Jefferson and Sally Hemings, it forges a strong emotional bond with the audience and brings an icy, intellectual, remote man and his much younger and less-educated lover into surprisingly sharp focus. Elsewhere, it's a jumbled canvas full of color, motion, and wit that never quite resolves itself into an indelible picture of a man, his women, and his long-gone world.
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