In 1785, some ten years after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson became America's first ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. There he observed the decadence which was to ignite the French Revolution, and there, according to this film, he twice fell in love, with the married Anglo-Italian artist Maria Cosway, and then with the half sister of his late wife, the household slave Sally Hemings. As usual with Merchant Ivory, dramatic tension, such as it is, centres on the conflict between love and convention, or, as Jefferson famously expressed it, the head and the heart. A man of reason and principle, Jefferson nevertheless embodied the contradictions of his time: he wrote that all men are created equal, yet remained a slave owner until his death; a widower who swore to remain true to his wife, he wooed Cosway (Scacchi), and had children by Hemings (Thandie Newton - very fly). Nick Nolte brings a starchy grace to Jefferson, but it's as if, regrettably, he's acting in a corset. For all the prettily embroidered rhetoric, Ruth Jhabvala's screenplay is too reticent to skewer hypocrisy, and Ivory's direction too inert to stir the passions.