Beloved
(US 1998)

Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise

Director: Jonathan Demme

Writing credits:Toni Morrison(novel) & Akosua Busia

Buena Vista * 172 minutes

The unfilmable book is probably a filmmaker's greatest challenge. Results of attempts to film such books, which usually rely on mood and allusion instead of plot, have mixed results. Sometimes you end up with FIELD OF DREAMS; other times you get, well, you get EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES. When you add an enormous emotional investment by perhaps the most prominent entertainment figure in the country, you get BELOVED.

BELOVED is first and foremost a cautionary tale of the dangers of losing perspective on one's own creative project. A film to which Oprah Winfrey has been committed for ten years, BELOVED, based on the acclaimed Toni Morrison novel, and directed by Jonathan Demme (SOMETHING WILD, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) is the story of Sethe, an escaped slave now living in her mother-in-law's house in Ohio. As the film begins, Sethe lives with the aforementioned mother-in-law (Beah Richards), her daughter Denver (Kathryn Elise) and the ghost of the daughter she murdered eight years earlier to keep her from growing up as a slave. In a gratuitously ugly opening sequence, the ghost wreaks havoc on the house, including the family dog. Animal lovers are urged to keep their eyes closed during this sequence, which sets the viewer's level of discomfort for the rest of the film.

At times elegaic and profound, at times incoherent and plodding, BELOVED is a graphic exploration of the psychological wreckage of slavery. As the ghost which has cursed Sethe's home becomes a human manifestation, its influence becomes more rather than less toxic to the household. Thandie Newton, who portrays this creature (is she human? Ghost? Real? A hallucination?), has the thankless task of trying to turn a literary device into a character. That she fails miserably is perhaps not her fault, but the fact that she practically chomps her way right through the screen is. She is exquisitely beautiful, reminiscent of the young Leslie Uggams, but a ghost manifestation with perfect lip gloss is just a bit implausible.

The other performances are better. Winfrey is, not surprisingly, strong and understated as Sethe, and shows none of the pretentiousness as an actress that she does as diet consultant/book reviewer/New Age guru. Danny Glover is terrific as Paul D., an old friend from slavery days who becomes Sethe's lover. Glover's character, despite eighteen years of wandering, has not lost his optimism about life, and does not understand Sethe's obsession with the past. Kathryn Elise infuses the character of Denver with the pathos of a young girl trapped in a haunted house with a damaged mother, and makes her grow into a poised young woman thrown into maturity as a result of the strange presence living in her home. She is able to act with her face in a way Newton cannot. Beah Richards, as Sethe's preacher/mother-in-law, provides the only uplift from the relentless dourness of the film. Her admonitions to revel in life's simplicity are the high points of the film.

While much of the cinematography is beautiful, including some gorgeous nature photography, the editing is horrible. Because the film is faithful to the book's telling as a series of vignettes, the overall effect is choppy, and one has the sense that a commercial is coming at the end of each scene.

BELOVED is not a terrible film, and it is arguably a necessary film, but it is relentlessly depressing, Beah Richards notwithstanding. Most films depicting human tragedy and man's inhumanity to man attempt to find some sort of greater meaning or message of strength out of adversity. That BELOVED offers none of these works to both its credit and its detriment.

 

- Jill Cozzi

 


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