They never did speak to each other in real life, but by happenstance two centuries later, here they are waistcoat to waistcoat at the video store: one of our most eloquent founding fathers, pontificating his way through the high-minded JEFFERSON IN PARIS (1995, Touchstone, PG-13, priced for rental), and the addled English monarch he so reviled, bellowing at a court of conspirators out to topple the throne in the MADNESS OF KING GEORGE (1994, Hallmark, R, priced for rental). It’s an historic week indeed when two such bewigged men of words appear simultaneously on shelves lately filled with jesters and mercenaries, guys whose idea of discourse is a raspberry or a well-placed body blow.
But hear ye, hear ye: Before you gambol home with one of these character portraits, settling for whichever elegant box happens to be in stock because you imagine one highfalutin costume drama is as good as the next, beware the sucker punch hidden up Jefferson’s ruffled sleeve. The film certainly delivers spectacle, lingering on lots of 1780s decor and piling on more eye-poppingly teased, bouffanted, and curlicued hairpieces than a week of Wigstocks. Yet only King George moves beyond all that to find the humanity of an ailing monarch caught with his pomp down. The pretentious Jefferson never penetrates beneath the surface of its waxworks ensemble.
In all its draggy two hours and 24 minutes, Jefferson barely addresses the ostensible reason that America’s future third President journeyed to France on the eve of its revolution: to ply his skills as a diplomat. Director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and scenarist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who settled on a winning mix of personal tragedy and political upheaval in their last outing, The Remains of the Day, here stumble about like nervous channel surfers, trapped in some time-warped colonial-TV cable network where every station is running an episode of Harde Copy.
For a solid hour, the movie focuses on a series of tepid dalliances between Jefferson (stiffly impersonated by Nick Nolte) and a married Italian noblewoman, Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi). When an adolescent slave, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), arrives to nanny Jefferson’s youngest daughter, the befuddled widower takes a completely unexamined (and historically disputed) fancy to her, demonstrating what he defends to Cosway as ”the special relationship we have with our Negroes.”
When Ivory intercuts long bedroom scenes with brief shots of Jefferson in conference with government officials, does he see Jefferson as a hypocritical dolt? A flawed man of passion? A confused closet racist? There’s no clear answer, just the spectacle of Nolte mumbling sweet nothings in a coy ”Suthun” accent and Newton buck-dancing her way through some of the most discomfiting Stepin Fetchitisms since Gone With the Wind. These scenes play even more offensively at home because TV sharply diminishes Jefferson’s biggest asset: its voluptuous visuals. Cropped at the sides, the images don’t possess the distractive power they did in theaters; if you get up momentarily (and you’ll want to), you’re left to hear the wretched, straight-from-the-diary dialogue unadorned.