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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; 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, instinctiveness and self-awareness.
With his distinctive block of a head hidden beneath a huge powdered wig, Jefferson isn't a terribly accessible figure. 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 movie goes on, the less sense it makes.
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), and his impatience with the pretensions of French aristocratic life. We're also taken to various key locations and immersed in the concerns of the time. Some of these are wonderfully vivid, and others are merely interesting. But the most fascinating aspect of the film is its investigation of Jefferson's 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, 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, he also maintained a roster of servants at his Virginia plantation. When Jefferson's youngest daughter dies back in Virginia, Jefferson brings his middle daughter and her personal slave, Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton), 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 have made for a strong, simple story if the filmmakers had chosen to explore it more thoroughly. But the filmmakers seem determined to cover as much ground as possible, so they toss in scenes and set pieces that are great to look at but only serve as distractions from the narrative. Like other Merchant/Ivory films -- but even more so -- Jefferson in Paris is obsessed with the minutiae of clothing, manners, body language, architecture and furnishings, often at the expense of drama.
Yet when the film sticks to Jefferson and Sally Hemings, it forges an 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.
Fortunately, Johnny Depp is both a stunning camera subject and a passionate actor, which means that no matter how many different ways Don Juan pontificates about the power of passion, his enthusiasm never grows tiresome. As framed and lit by cinematographer Ralf Bode, his lithe frame, sculpted cheekbones and dark eyes recall silent film star Rudolph Valentino, and his wonky verbal stylings -- Ricardo Montalban by way of Pepe Le Pew -- caress vowels and consonants in an almost musical fashion.
Aside from his consuming interest in all things carnal, this Don Juan bears little relation to the famous Castillian hero. He's a mysterious 21-year-old clad in a Zorroesque getup who strolls the streets of 20th century New York on an endless quest for sensual adventure. We're never quite sure if he's the real article or just some randy loner who's wrapped himself in an alternate identity because his own no longer suits him; the film is deliberately coy on this point.
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