Jefferson in Paris, a Personal Portrait

Merchant Ivory's new film shows that the makers of 'Howard's End' and 'A Room With a View' are at the peak of their cinematic powers

'Jefferson in Paris,'' the new movie from Merchant Ivory Productions, couldn't arrive at a more auspicious moment.

In recent times, pundits and politicians have revived the fashion of invoking early American history as a utopian epoch, shaped by uniquely gifted men blessed with a political wisdom that has since been mysteriously lost.

Bringing into play the artistic wisdom that has brought them to the front ranks of world cinema, director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala use their new film to probe not the superhuman abilities but the all-too-human complexities of those who faced the moral and intellectual challenges of 18th-century democracy.

Full of surprises as usual, Ivory and Jhabvala set their story not in the newborn United States but in faraway Europe, using Thomas Jefferson's five-year stint as an ambassador to address such imposing issues as freedom, equality, and revolution.

While the story swings between sweeping historical study and intimate biographical conjecture, its steady focus on Jefferson's complicated nature keeps the film consistently warm and engaging, avoiding the twin pitfalls of neatly mythologizing or crudely debunking the protagonist and his era.

Add the brilliant sensitivity to period detail that has become one of Ivory's most striking trademarks -- every object has the ring of truth, from buildings and furniture to clothing and table settings -- and you have a work of art that's satisfying on every level, showing that the makers of such literate entertainments as ''A Room With a View'' and ''Howard's End'' are still at the peak of their powers.

The film begins in 1784, eight years after Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and -- at least as important to the course of his life -- two years after the death of his wife, from which he has still not recovered. Arriving in Paris to assume his post as ambassador to the French court, he finds himself in an uneasy land presided over by a weak-willed king and a self-indulgent queen. The two fail to grasp the import of the revolutionary tremors generated by their angry populace with increasing frequency.

Himself a committed revolutionary with a healthy respect for political turmoil, Jefferson observes the growing upheaval with a sort of fatherly approval -- reinforced by the respect he receives from progressive French thinkers -- while taking an attitude of bemused fatalism toward the obliviousness of his royal hosts. Where a more conventional drama might show him becoming preoccupied with these developments, however, ''Jefferson in Paris'' depicts him as a fully rounded individual who needs to devote much of his energy to his own concerns.

He keeps up his activities in architecture, agriculture, and other practical fields. He installs his elder daughter in a Roman Catholic school, hoping she'll get a good education while keeping her Protestantism intact, and becomes somewhat distressed when events require him to put his theories of religious freedom into personal practice. He grieves the death of a child in Virginia, and sends for his remaining daughter to join him in Europe.

Busy as all this makes him, he also finds time to strike up a romantic relationship with the British-Italian wife of a foppish French painter -- and to begin a second affair, perhaps more devoted and certainly more sensual, with a slave named Sally Hemmings, sister of his personal servant and nursemaid to his youngest child.

Jefferson's involvement with Hemmings has inspired every kind of discourse, from prurient gossip to earnest scholarship, in the years since it became widely known. Ivory is no prude -- films like ''Quartet'' and ''Maurice'' show him to be quite the opposite -- but in keeping with the civilized sensibility that always distinguishes his work, he and his collaborators refuse to capitalize on obvious possibilities for sensationalism.

Their treatment shows a Jefferson motivated more by loneliness, insecurity, and the simple need for affection than by the lusts and aggressions so eagerly traded in by conventional movies.

The filmmakers also dodge the temptation to moralize about the relationship in racial terms; instead they portray both white master and black subordinate (not technically a slave while on French territory) as people of their time, reaching to one another for reasons too intricate to explain.

First-rate acting provides firm support for Ivory's approach. Nick Nolte sets his career on a new path with his depiction of Jefferson, combining maturity with vulnerability in a manner that perfectly suits Jhabvala's artfully constructed narrative.

Thandie Newton plays Hemmings with a smartly balanced mixture of dignity and playfulness. Greta Scacchi brings a different inflection to the same qualities as the European artist who also captures Jefferson's heart.

The supporting cast includes James Earl Jones as a mixed-race descendant of the Jefferson-Hemmings affair; Michael Lonsdale as the sadly bewildered French monarch; and Simon Callow, a normally dependable actor who brings more caricature than conviction to the effeminate painter.

Pierre Lhomme did the finely toned cinematography, charged with the visual luster that Ivory films invariably contain. Richard Robbins composed the nicely functional music, and Guy-Claude Francois created the impeccable production design. As always, Ismail Merchant is the inspired producer who coordinated these contributions.

* Rated PG-13; contains sexual situations and a brief look at a bawdy puppet show.

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