by Cathleen Myers
This Merchant Ivory film has been justly praised for its beautiful, authentic 1780’s costuming by Jenny Beavan and John Bright, stunning period music, accurate choreography by Elizabeth Aldrich, and period atmosphere - all of which make it a fun movie to rent. If only as much care had been lavished on the screenplay! After the first hour we begin to realize that the film is going absolutely nowhere. Far from humanizing Jefferson (Nick Nolte), as its trailers had suggested, the film makes the Founding Father come off as a wooden icon and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala goes out of her way to placate Jeffersonians by finding excuses for both of his love affairs: The adulterous romance with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) was OK because her husband was openly gay; the controversial affair with his 14 year old slavegirl Sally Hemmings was "OK" because she seduced him*. Yeah. Right. The film is clumsily constructed with a framing device - narrator Madison Hemmings, a descendant of Sally and Jefferson - who inexplicably vanishes from the story. While the screenplay attempts to raise tantalizing questions about Jefferson’s role in the French Revolution and about the tension between Jefferson the Democratic Idealist and Jefferson the Slave-holding Aristocrat, the film is essentially an expensive bodice-ripper.
*This sentence is, of course, intended to be ironic. We certainly do not agree that Ms. Jhabvala's highly romantic screenplay is the gospel truth. One irate lady wrote in to protest that Cosway was not gay, merely a dandy, and went on to defend the gifted and much misunderstood Maria Cosway's character and to make insulting remarks about our 18th century fashion sense. We had assumed that the phrase "Yeah. Right." was a sufficient indication of our ironic intent (It's an homage to Zorak the sardonic supervillain praying mantis co-host on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast" and "Cartoon Planet." "Yeah. Right" is his catchphrase and was so, indeed, before the phrase became widely popular), but our lady correspondent seems to misinterpreted the sentence.
While a novel or film can speculate, there is, of course, no way to determine a historical character's sexual orientation or even sexual motives unless, as in Miss Anne Lister's case, they're so obliging as to leave a detailed journal about their sexual experiences and interests - assuming, of course, that the journal is a truthful account of the author's feelings, which not all are!
In any event, as nearly all of you know, to summarize a movie's plot is not necessarily to agree that the story it tells is true. In any event, we hope our readers will have the good sense in future to aim their complaints about the film to Ms. Jhabvala herself c/o Merchant Ivory studios. And, while it would be unseemly to defend our own fashion sense, we suggest that our readers attend PEERS' next 18th century ball and judge that for themselves.
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