Beloved
Reviewed in October 1998
Director: Jonathan Demme. Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall, Irma P. Hall, Kessia Randall, Jason Robards. Screenplay: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks (based on the novel by Toni Morrison).

Photo © 1998 Touchstone Pictures/Harpo Films
Seldom has a novel lived up to its title as fully as Toni Morrison's Beloved has, a Pulitzer Prize winner and instant national treasure that, despite its staggering density and abundance of metaphor, Oprah Winfrey has been trying for a decade to adapt into film. You cannot help but laugh, or frown, at comments like Owen Gleiberman's in Entertainment Weekly that Beloved is "the kind of film that's made to win awards." If it were such a sure-fire Oscar-nabber, you'd think something less than ten years would be required for even the Midas of the modern day to sell her vision to a studio.

The great news about Beloved is that producer-star Winfrey and director Jonathan Demme have created a robust, haunted, and challenging picture that commands attention early and builds a mighty head of steam. The film falters a bit in the third hour, but not irrecoverably, and its power is not seriously diluted. Beloved's success as an adaptation of the novel is in many ways an impossible and frivolous standard by which to judge; no one involved seems to have approached this material with the idea of animating Morrison's vision without sacrifice or compromise. Within the rubric, though, of maintaining the book's fierce spirit and rigorous attention to a wounded social history, Beloved is admirable in ways that should reward most viewers who are willing and bold enough to test its deep, still waters.

The story's central figure is Sethe, played by Winfrey: an ex-slave whose legs are sturdy and whose heart is tough, but whose eyes always seem to be reaching back to past horrors, terrible dreams. At the moment Beloved begins, Sethe lives in a weary but strong old house in rural Ohio, earning her own keep and raising her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) as well as one can when stories are too difficult to tell, and life is too demanding to allow much time for what Oprah-watchers today would call "bonding." There is also a third occupant, sort of, in Sethe and Denver's home. The ghost of Beloved, a daughter whose early death is clearly a memory of great pain for Sethe, continually racks the house with spasms of pained fury that send crockery crashing, propels panicked dogs on brutal trajectories through the air, and burns light itself into a humid, livid red.

Such is the state of 124 Bluestone Road when Paul D Garner (Danny Glover), a long-ago friend of Sethe's from plantation days, appears on Sethe's doorstep almost a decade after the end of the Civil War. Demme and frequent cameraman Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs, Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress) shoot the reunion in an almost mathematical interchange of close-ups, showing us how self-contained these people have had to become in their own lives and memories, how difficult the effort of sharing space after so long on the run, on the roads, and away from any outside affection. The shots elicit unwanted memories of Lecter and Clarice's tête-à-têtes in Lambs, and the two actors play their characters' hesitations so earnestly that the scene risks a certain creakiness of restraint. Saving the sequence, however, are editors Andy Kier and Carol Littleton (she a veteran of Lawrence Kasdan's pictures). They intersperse the shots with purposeful discontinuities—Sethe enters the left of the frame when we expect her to arrive on the right, for example—which subtly give rise to a spooky, unsettling atmosphere around the house even before the main action begins.

The ghost of Beloved does not waste time making Paul feel uncomfortable. She clenches the walls and floors of the house and assaults Paul (though we are not sure how) with terrible images from his past history, not to mention images of her own short but horror-filled life. Ironically, though, Sethe can explain the ghost's behavior much more easily and articulately than she can account for the behavior of Denver, who weeps uncharacteristically and cuts down all of Paul's gestures toward friendliness. Elise, whose performance starts out strong and only gets better, plays Denver initially as a cowed spirit who perceives Beloved's furies as a sort of abuse, and increasingly resents her mother for not allowing them to relocate.

The first half-hour or so of Beloved plays out as a sort of chamber drama in which these three souls must redistribute their burdens and confront their own prejudices, eventually achieving an agreement that, if they are not quite a family, they are at least a peaceful alliance. Because he has come so close to building himself a home with these women, it is Paul D who reacts most sourly and mistrustfully when he, Sethe, and Denver return from a day at the fair and find in their yard a sleeping, river-drenched, and angel-faced woman, whose entire energies seem at work in her loud, disconcerting snore. Taking the stranger inside the house, they finally get her to speak when Sethe asks her name. "B," mutters a voice that drones like a Komodo dragon's; "E... L... O..." She continues until she reveals that her name is that of Sethe's lost daughter. Shortly after she falls back into sleep.

No one treats this new, gangly Beloved as they would any stranger who arrived at their house. Paul puzzles over the newness of her shoes and her intense cravings for family memories. Denver begins to mother her with the attention and physical tenderness of which she herself seems in need. Sethe, clear-sightedly but unperturbedly alert to the woman's physical disabilities, monstrous appetite, and apparent mental deficiencies, simply accepts the visitor as another of life's strange deliveries. Before long, Beloved completes the most improbably "normal" two-children-and-a-dog family presented in recent cinema. Of course, there are incredible darknesses to be penetrated as Beloved's story plays out, and of course the fleeting sense of balance among these people will tremble and quake more than even Paul could predict, shaking the family more deeply than anything performed by the now-dormant ghost.

The crowning achievement of Beloved is its stubborn insistence on taking its circumstances to the graphic and disruptive extremes that the story and even our history sadly require. Flashback sequences of Sethe being raped at the Sweet Home plantation, of Denver's perilous birth on a riverbank, and of the hanging of Sethe's mother are rendered in short but vivid shots from which color itself seems to drain; the images blanch at the horror of their own content. I was aware of relying on my knowledge of Morrison's novel to guide me through a few of the film's passages, but these are challenging memories for the characters themselves to confront and to organize, and we do not deserve to receive them with more clarity or comfort than Sethe, Paul, or anyone else in the film can achieve.

Curiously, however, the climactic event that does more than any other to explain the emotions flaring on screen occurs in this script more than an hour before the film concludes. Not only is the final hour already at a disadvantage in momentum, but such plotting of the narrative leaves Winfrey with nowhere really to take her performance until the final few sequences. Without its personal center, and despite the galvanizing work of Elise (who is, after all, playing the most hopeful figure in the story and the one most able to grasp and move on from her history), Beloved feels more labored and diffuse than it needs to for a cumbersome forty-five minutes. During this time, Demme starts widening his lens to the general situating of blacks during the Reconstruction—the broad liberal impulses that hobbled Philadelphia press nervously onto this film as well—and for the first time, events take place that are not only hard to read but never fully reward the effort of our attentions. The length of Beloved would not have been a problem if a standard of intensity and discipline of focus had been maintained throughout the course of the picture.

And yet, if the film does not evade every pitfall in its path, much is to be praised here. In addition to Elise, Beah Richards and Thandie Newton contribute indelible supporting performances—further proof after The Opposite of Sex's Lisa Kudrow, High Art's Patricia Clarkson, and Your Friends & Neighbors' Catherine Keener that 1998's strongest performances have been those of supporting actresses. Richards, as Sethe's mother-in-law Baby Suggs, inhabits the familiar role of the backyard evangelist grown wise through suffering with a lambent warmth and astonishing strength.

Newton has quite the opposite challenge to Richards', playing a role with few real precedents in modern film or literature and without any decisive moral or psychological cornerstones. She makes a bold and highly risky decision to play Beloved as a teeth-baring Fifth Child, a simpleton whose cooings and stares are a bit too forceful to be blindly indulged even by those who adopt her and offer their love. Beloved is unfortunately another character whose arc virtually stops after Hour Two, but the impression Newton makes is so vivid, particularly during her initial emergence from the moonlit Ohio, that she haunts the whole movie from the moment she arrives. Not to be slighted, either, is the brio with which this unfairly little-known actress dares to sour a character who could have been a martyr or placid beauty. She effectively undermines any expectation we may have for Beloved as a safe, reverential adaptation of the novel, thus denying that great literature, even when hugely popular, should be invulnerable to new, unattractive rereadings.

Winfrey and Glover are less galvanizing in their roles, largely due to Winfrey's visible newness to screen acting and Paul's own contradictions as conceived by Morrison; his, arguably, is also the character most apt to suffer from the necessary paring-down of screen adaptation. Still, these two charismatic actors make us believe their unhappiness, and Winfrey's moment of wonder that Beloved may know the worst about her and love her all the same is affecting and poignant. Sethe, in a bizarre twist, does not always come across as coherently and powerfully as Oprah herself does so famously on television, but the fact that Winfrey could keep her familiar media persona so absent from this performance deserves praise of its own.

Beloved is not likely to win the sort of allegiance from filmgoers that the novel has among its readers. I could not help but wish the project had been green-lighted early enough for Cicely Tyson to have a go of the lead role, but the film—and I mean very specifically the filmmaking, not its subject or message—is so stately and sombering that such sniping seems petty. I suspect a masterful Beloved awaits us if movies are ever permitted to forfeit narrative concerns more daringly and operate instead on the purely enigmatic plane of visual impression; F.W. Murnau could have worked wonders with this material as an old silent film. Beloved is, after all, frequently a tale about how we make sense of the terrible and troubling spectacles we behold, but which cannot easily be put into words, so a silent version would make a certain kind of poetic sense. Still, considering this Beloved for what it is, and for the moment in which it arrives, the picture is sincere and well-crafted, technically inspired and deeply felt. B+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Costume Design: Colleen Atwood

Other Awards:
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actress, Drama (Elise)

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