Best known for their historical epics that examine class and social issues in British life through a thick lens of tasteful production design and good manners, director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant set their sights on an American protagonist for a change with Jefferson in Paris. As the title suggests, Jefferson in Paris deals with the five years that Thomas Jefferson (Nick Nolte) spent as U.S. ambassador to France prior to the French Revolution; while Jefferson is sympathetic to the revolutionary forces in France, he's become well enough acquainted with the ruling aristocracy that he finds himself torn between the two sides of the issue. Jefferson, a recent widower, also becomes friends with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), who is married to a foppish British artist; while it's obvious the two are in love, neither is in a position to do anything about their infatuation. And while Jefferson's daughter Patsy (Gwyneth Paltrow) loves her father, she's very upset with him when he sends her to a convent school. In this midst of this personal turmoil, Jefferson's younger daughter Polly (Estelle Eonnet) arrives in Paris, with her slave Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton) in tow. Attractive and bright (if uneducated), Sally catches Jefferson's eye, and a friendship develops that grows into something deeper; in time, Sally becomes pregnant, and her family claims that Jefferson is the father. At the time Jefferson in Paris was released, the question of Sally Hemmings' relationship with Thomas Jefferson was a matter of lively historical debate; since then, genetic evidence has shown that, while Jefferson's paternity can't be proved beyond a doubt, it is likely that he did father children with Hemmings.
by Mark Deming synopsis