Beloved (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Beloved, Jonathan Demme's much-anticipated adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel, is a powerful and disturbing motion picture that is likely to leave many movie-goers unsettled as they file out of the theater. Although the movie probably runs a little too long and occasionally suffers from confusing editing, it is nevertheless the kind of film that stays with a viewer for days (instead of minutes or hours) after the end credits have scrolled across the screen.

Beloved is a ghost tale. It's about a woman's sins literally coming back to haunt her. The main story transpires in Ohio during 1865, but there are numerous flashbacks to pre-Civil War times. Like many other motion pictures set during this era, Beloved is about the pernicious influence of slavery, but the approach taken by Morrison's novel attains its uncommon power through originality. There are twists in the plot that I will not discuss here except to say that they present a gut-wrenching view of what slavery could drive a woman to do in the name of protecting her children. Some of what happens in Beloved, you will expect. Other things, you will not.

The film opens on a peaceful summer afternoon in Ohio, when a lonely traveler named Paul D (Danny Glover) arrives at the house at 124 Bluestone Road. Living there is Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a woman Paul D knew many years ago when they were both slaves on a Kentucky farm named Sweet Home. ("It wasn't sweet and it wasn't home.") Sethe is not alone in her house. Her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), a virtual shut-in, also lives there. However, her two sons have long since gone, scared away by the ghost of another child that haunts the premises. ("It ain't evil, just sad.") No sooner has Paul D arrived than he meets the spirit, and, in a struggle of wills, appears to dispel it. But Denver doubts his success, thinking that the dead baby is planning something.

Soon after, Paul D, now Sethe's lover, has moved in, and is setting his sights on winning Denver's trust. One afternoon, on the way back from a carnival, Denver and Sethe encounter a nearly-mute young woman (Thandie Newton) who has been overcome by heat exhaustion. They bring her home and revive her. The only name she gives them is "Beloved." Thereafter, Denver makes Beloved her special project, teaching her things about life, and how to speak. But, while Denver and Sethe are infatuated with this strange, wild woman, Paul D is suspicious. Something about Beloved strikes him as dangerous.

Beloved contains its share of brutal flashbacks from the time of Sethe and Paul D's enslavement. In one, we see a group of men holding down a pregnant Sethe while others viciously assault her. Arguably more disturbing is a scene set in the "present," when, as Sethe and Paul D embrace during lovemaking, we see the crisscross of ugly scars across their backs, the legacy of their long, hard, dehumanizing years at Sweet Home. In actuality, however, the film's power doesn't come from one single scene, or even a series of scenes, but from the cumulative effect of everything that transpires, and the eerie manner in which Demme chooses to present it.

The performances in Beloved are uniformly excellent. Oprah Winfrey, who has always chosen her film roles carefully, and is probably best known for her syndicated weekday talk show, essays Sethe as a complex and believable character trapped by the consequences of her own actions. From the beginning, we can sense her pain, even when we don't know the full explanation for it. As the movie progresses, however, and more of the story emerges, we come to understand her reasons for acting as she did, even if it's impossible to agree with her. Winfrey throws herself into this role, thoroughly effacing her glamorous television image. This isn't surprising, since she was the driving force behind getting Beloved made.

Danny Glover, who is probably best known for being Mel Gibson's partner in the Lethal Weapon series, makes a fine, sympathetic Paul D. Glover's role as the outsider is to lead the audience into the strange, closed world that exists at 124 Bluestone Road, and it's a part that he fulfills admirably. Thandie Newton, who has previously appeared in another film set in this period (The Journey of August King) gives a performance that evokes sympathy, revulsion, and horror. The supporting cast includes Kimberly Elise as Denver, Lisa Gay Hamilton as a young Sethe, and Beah Richards as the elderly preacher woman, Baby Suggs.

Demme, who has directed both the chilling The Silence of the Lambs and the affecting Philadelphia, uses bits and pieces of his approach to both films here. The period detail of 1860s Cincinnati is impeccable. (The movie was actually filmed in Philadelphia, a city Demme developed a fondness for during location shooting for the Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington AIDS drama.) The director also makes frequent use of filters to highlight the emotions of certain scenes. The less-monstrous flashbacks are presented in sepia-tinted tones, while other sequences are shown with almost all of the color leeched out.

Beloved is one of those films that won't work for someone in search of light entertainment. Like Schindler's List, Amistad, Rosewood, and Saving Private Ryan, the movie deals with difficult subjects without flinching or sugar-coating the truth. Beloved is for those who want substance from a movie, and don't mind facing uncomfortable truths in the process. When the year is over, this will surely be recognized as one of 1998's most memorable and unsettling motion pictures. It will be a shock if the Academy does not agree when handing out Oscar nominations early next year.

Beloved (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:55
U.S. Release Date: 1998-10-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1