Jefferson's Dangerous Liaisons

One of the intriguing 18th-century artifacts featured in the lavish new Merchant Ivory production Jefferson in Paris is a loom-like contraption Thomas Jefferson employs when writing letters, enabling him to produce a simultaneous copy of his text. Director James Ivory has always been fascinated by period details, so you can't be sure if the prominence given this machine is decorative or metaphorical. Is it a comment, perhaps, on the double nature of Jefferson himself, the complex, brilliant statesman/architect and champion of liberty who drafted the Declaration of Independence, yet lived in Paris as the American ambassador to France attended by his black slave James Hemings (Seth Gilliam)?

The Virginian, played by Nick Nolte, was a 41-year-old widower when he landed in Louis XVI's France, a country on the verge of a revolution inspired in part by Jefferson's own words. It's fascinating to learn, as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's heavily researched script reveals, that at the time Jefferson was minister to the Versailles court, Congress was insolvent, and that one of his accomplishments was procuring a loan from Dutch bankers to remunerate the French volunteers who had fought alongside us in our revolutionary struggle with England.

American movies so seldom delve into our 18th-century roots that one gratefully absorbs the historical details sprinkled throughout this always handsome spectacle. "Jefferson in Paris" is, alas, a better history lesson than a drama. Smart but inert, stately but rhythmless, it circles its contradictory, polymathic hero for nearly two and a half hours without ever quite bringing him to life. Nolte makes a gallant effort but can't entirely disguise that he's not to the manor born.

Ivory and Jhabvala approach Jefferson through his relationship with three women. The first is his beloved daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow), a highly strung, possessive girl on whom he dotes with a passion bordering on the illicit. The second is Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the married English-Italian aristocrat he gives his heart to, then pulls away from when she offers to leave her husband and Europe for him. The third is Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), his young mulatto slave and lover, with whom he may have fathered several illegitimate children. Here, the filmmakers are taking their lead from Fawn M. Brodie's controversial best seller "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History." The historians can debate the facts of this relationship, but there's no doubt Sally's arrival midway through comes not a moment too soon. Between Nolte and Scacchi there are a couple of sweet moments, but no romantic or erotic frisson. With Newton and Nolte the movie finally registers a pulse.

Jhabvala and Ivory aren't out to rake Jefferson over the coals for his racial hypocrisies; they cast a cool, objective eye on both his moral lapses and his intellectual virtues. But judiciousness can take you only so far. What this movie needs is great scenes, and it doesn't have any. When the Merchant Ivory team is at its best-in "Howards End" and "A Room With a View"-you can feel the passion behind the tasteful reserve. But there's no moment in "Jefferson in Paris" when you can feel why the filmmakers had to tell this story All dressed up, this elegant movie has nowhere to go.