Directed by Jonathan Demme
Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall, Irma P. Hall.
1998 174 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, violence, sexual situations, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 20, 1998.
It is known that it took Oprah Winfrey ten years to bring Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's novel, "Beloved," to the screen, and she was determined to get it made. It was only until she met director Jonathan Demme (1991's "Silence of the Lambs") that she knew she had found the perfect person to make the adaptation.
"Beloved" is a mysterious, unusual, sprawling epic, running just under 3 hours, and set in Cincinnati, circa 1873. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave, lives in a quaint rural home with her quiet 18-year-old daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), and an angry ghost that haunts the house. Sethe also had two sons that ran away eight years earlier, and a baby daughter whom is no longer with her. Aside from the ghost, things begin to look up for Sethe when an old friend from her slave days at Sweet Home, Paul D (Danny Glover), turns up on her doorstep one day and becomes her lover. The peculiar title character, Beloved (Thandie Newton), enters the film thirty minutes into it, found with her back up against a tree stump in front of their house, beetles crawling all over her body. Sethe allows Beloved to stay at their home, and she becomes a sort of playmate with Denver, but it is obvious from the start that there is something awfully fishy about this young woman.
That is all of the story that I would even dare mention, because "Beloved" is the type of movie that, if you are unfamiliar with the plot going in, the less said, the better. Those going into "Beloved" expecting a slavery drama will, no doubt, be rather shocked by the film, as it is filled with many supernatural elements, and deals with such elements as ghosts, evil spirits, and resurrection.
"Beloved" is a deliberately-paced, but well-crafted, exceptionally performed motion picture. There are so many brilliantly effective moments throughout that it is quite disappointing when, after 3 hours of investing your time in it, it doesn't seem to add up to much. The story is intriguing and truly original, and the film felt as if it was leading up to an emotional powerhouse of an ending, but after the central story concludes, the film goes on for another twenty minutes, which is especially problematic since the intensity and mystery of the story has vanished. Although the ending starts to drag, there also seem to be chunks of the story that have been edited out, which was a mistake. Things occur quickly in the last hour, and plot elements are forgotten about or go unexplained. My guess is that the picture was originally a 4-hour film, so they had to trim it, but in doing so, they edited the wrong section out. It was the very ending that needed a severe edit, not the sections that they did cut out.
Maybe it is beginning to sound like I didn't care for, "Beloved," which is untrue. Although nowhere nearly as brilliant as it would like to be, the film is nonetheless an admirable piece of work.
The performances from the central cast are, by far, the highlight of the piece. Winfrey, in her first feature film since 1985's superior, "The Color Purple," is strong and self-assured, not to mention able to get the viewer to forget that she is a talk show host from the first frame. Thandie Newton, as the difficult Beloved, has what is probably the most difficult role, as she is given what is perhaps an unplayable role. Newton somehow succeeds, however, in both capturing our sympathy in one scene, and frustrating us in the next. The standout in the cast is Kimberly Elise, who gives the film's most touching, sympathetic performance. She very much deserves an Academy Award nomination come next February. She is that dazzling.
While watching "Beloved," I could easily see one of the best films of the year within, but it ultimately let me down in its penultimate moments. Winfrey, Demme, and screenwriters Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks, should be applauded for successfully adapting such a complex, unwieldly novel, but it certainly could have been so much more.
©1998 by Dustin Putman