Moving Heaven and Earth In spirit and power, 'Beloved' is a worthy translation of Toni Morrison's haunting story of slavery, suffering and hope.

October 16, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Beloved" is the movie that couldn't be made, and was, about people who couldn't go on, and did.

Admirers of "Beloved," Toni Morrison's novel about a former slave trying to rebuild her life during Reconstruction, were understandably skeptical when they heard that the Pulitzer Prize-winning book was being adapted for the screen. How could a movie ever begin to capture the book's complex structure, its poetic language, its interiority and rhythm?

Director Jonathan Demme has solved that problem by narrowing his focus while hewing strictly to the novel's visual details and emotional tone. In an ingenious move, he has directed "Beloved" as a ghost story, which presents rich opportunities for visual interest and metaphorical expression.

With scenes of graphic violence (we see a dog's eye pulled out of its socket in the very first scene), flashes of magical realism and subliminally brief flashbacks, Demme has made "Beloved" as intense and frightening as possible. In doing so, he presents slavery in a new way, not as a now-familiar set of iconic images of suffering, but as a psychological legacy, giving audiences a visceral sense of its deep emotional toll.

The result is an extraordinary film that is always hypnotically watchable, even as it presents the audience with scenes of harrowing pain.

Winfrey plays Sethe, a former slave living in Cincinnati in 1873 -- eight years after the Civil War -- with her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise). Sethe and Denver live on the outskirts of town in a white frame house that heaves and quivers with an unseen force. A ghost haunts the place, wreaking such chaos that Denver's two brothers have long since fled.

Sethe and Denver have made a kind of peace with the spirit when Paul D. (Danny Glover) arrives on their doorstep. Paul D., who worked on the same plantation as Sethe, has been looking for her since they both escaped 18 years ago. When he moves in and the three begin to settle into being a family, the ghost becomes enraged. She comes back to life in the form of an otherworldly girl named Beloved, who wanders into Sethe's yard and proceeds to uproot her life.

Thandie Newton gives a shockingly weird performance as Beloved, who is clearly the ghost of the infant daughter Sethe murdered when she thought her children were in danger of being captured by her former master. Newton's characterization so strange that it's difficult to say whether it's a great portrayal or just bizarre. Speaking in an unearthly croak, spastically stuffing bread into her distorted mouth, Newton plays Beloved as a terrifying, feral creature, sometimes appealingly childlike but always deeply disturbing.

Winfrey has miraculously submerged her persona as the most powerful and well-known woman in television to inhabit completely the stoic character of Sethe. A woman of almost forbidding reserve, she relates the horrific stories of her life without betraying any emotion.

As the wary, protective Denver, Elise gracefully undertakes the movie's most dramatic journey, from being a sullen and isolated child to a self-aware young woman.

Between these three troubled women, there aren't many characters in "Beloved" for audiences to wrap their arms around. As the gentle Paul D., Glover is on-screen too briefly, as is Beah Richards, whose beatific and authoritative portrayal of the spiritual leader Baby Suggs may be the film's most potent performance.

If Demme is careful to present fully the arduous struggles of African-Americans during slavery and Reconstruction, he also makes sure to depict the beauty and redemption that went hand-in-hand with those struggles.

As difficult as it is to watch at times, "Beloved" is suffused with images of striking beauty, whether of the natural world surrounding Sethe's house, or the community that coalesces to save her.

Among the most seductive sights in "Beloved": a sleeping girl covered with hundreds of ladybugs; Sethe's first glimpse of the Ohio River, and of freedom on the other side; and the formidable phalanx of women who descend upon Sethe's house to exorcise Beloved's destructive spirit.

Such images of hope and strength are just as haunting as the most painful sequences of "Beloved," and they ensure the movie's enduring power.

'Beloved' Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Rated R (violent images, sexuality and nudity)

Running time: 171 minutes

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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