Moved by the Spirit
Beloved, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the much-revered Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, is a tragic, sorrowful affair -- just like the book itself. Those who have finished the book know it's not a brisk read. Like most of Morrison's work (including Song of Solomon and Jazz), Beloved has a bleak, confounding rhythm that might rivet some and alienate others. Either way, it's emotionally gut-wrenching.
Fortunately, the movie retains the same gripping action. With an almost three-hour length and enough brutal, blistering imagery to make white people want to apologize to every African-American they see afterward, the film hooks the audience with its spellbinding, woeful display. Beloved ain't easy, folks.
The movie begins with former slave girl Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) raising a family on the outskirts of Cincinnati in 1865. After a brief establishing prologue, the movie zips ahead eight years. A weary but diligent Sethe tends to her crops and gets an unexpected visit from homeless ex-slave Paul D. (Danny Glover), a friend of her missing husband. When he first steps into Sethe's home, he sees a luminous, haunting spirit draping the whole house in a hallucinogenic red color, and throwing stuff (including the family dog) across the room while bellowing hellishly. The spirit has scared Sethe's two boys out of the house and out of town, and has kept her younger daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), confined indoors.
In an effort to get in the good graces of both Sethe and Denver, Paul exorcises the demon from the dwelling in one forceful swoop. Needless to say, the spirit gets pissed. Now taking human form, the apparition rolls out of a swamp and becomes Beloved (Thandie Newton), who is taken in by Sethe.
Little does Paul know that the stranger is none other than Sethe's daughter, who was killed by Sethe when she escaped with her children from Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation where they were enslaved. As her master was coming to retrieve them, Sethe slit her oldest daughter's throat and tried to kill her other children, who survived.
This incident turned Sethe into the disreputable town outcast; residents whisper under their breath every time she leaves the house. Denver knows that Beloved is her big sis and greets her with open arms. But Beloved is back primarily for Sethe. She'll go to any lengths with her paranormal powers -- including putting Paul in a spell and seducing him -- to determine the motives that resulted in her death as an infant.
Like the book, Beloved the film treats its supernatural element with a common casualness. Morrison seems to be suggesting that African-Americans at the time had seen so much horror that a soul rising from the dead would be somewhat of a godsend. The whole ghost-story aspect provides a sort of optimistic escapism, which similar films would replace with platitudes. When Sethe finally realizes that this mysterious, callow figure is, in fact, her dead daughter all grown up, her face beams with a reassuring glow, as if she is being forgiven for her murderous sin.
Beloved attempts to do for the post-Civil War, epic racial saga what Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan did for the World War II movie: Show a deeper, darker, visually disturbing alternative.
Although a few cliched bits of histrionic dialogue were thrown into the script for dramatic impact, and the film should've been cut for length, Beloved does succeed in dispatching bare, unflinching contrition in its narrative. Jonathan Demme, coming out of filmmaking hibernation after a five-year absence, directs the movie with a claustrophobic eye.
The way Demme sets up tight internal scenes and point-of-view close-ups, you get the impression you're invading these characters' spaces. Even the startling plantation flashbacks of Sethe and Paul suggest an enclosing malevolence.
Demme gives the film a dolorous sheen. It's almost too polished -- Beloved has such an award-worthy shine on it, the words, "For Your Oscar Consideration" might as well appear at the bottom of the screen during the entire film.
As is often true in a film of this caliber, these are peak performances. Winfrey, who also served as a producer, gives such a disengaging, unglamorous turn as Sethe that you almost forget she's -- Oprah! Glover, who sports a Frederick Douglass 'do in this film, does a quaint, good-natured job playing a guy wholeheartedly trying to fill the male shoes in an unbelievably broken home.
Glover and Winfrey blend with sympathetic delicacy. As Denver, Elise evinces the most sorrow and woe. She turns her character into a tissue of cathartic pain, detecting and absorbing the faintest bit of disapproval with her sullen facial expressions and arching eyebrows.
Other competent performances by Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton (so wonderful on TV's The Practice) and Irma P. Hall also play into the mix.
Audiences should remember the British-bred Newton long after the film is over. She goes far beyond her classical training to play the title character. Newton embodies her character with the vengeful loss behind Beloved's childlike stare and crookedly clenched teeth. She astoundingly matches what Morrison summed up about Beloved in the book: She is "not evil, just sad."
The movie is a tearjerker, but not in the artificial, excessive mode of most recent weepie date-flicks, such as Simon Birch, One True Thing and What Dreams May Come. Beloved releases emotions in a raw, scary fashion. The last 30 minutes suck the very life out of your body and wring it like a loofah sponge.
When the movie's over, you feel exhausted, physically and emotionally. I didn't know whether to go home or hang out at the concession stand, asking ushers if they could hold me. It's just one of those films that'll make you feel something even if it kills you.
Beloved is the feel-bad movie of the year. I mean that as a compliment.
Directed by Jonathan Demme. With Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Beah Richards.
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