MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Oprah Winfrey (Sethe), Danny Glover (Paul D), Thandie Newton (Beloved), Kimberly Elise (Denver), Beah Richards (Baby Suggs), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Younger Sethe), Albert Hall (Stamp Paid), Irma P. Hall (Ella), Dorothy Love Coates (M. Lucille Williams)
"Beloved" is a film that overwhelms. It overwhelms in many ways, some of them good, and some of them bad, and when the final scene fades to black, it's almost hard to know what to feel. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Confused. Unsure. Unsettled. Reawakened. Haunted.
Not all of those feelings are particularly comfortable, and I have the notion that some viewers will interpret them as having disliked the movie. I don't blame them. "Beloved" is not an easy film to like in the conventional sense, yet I cannot escape the feeling that producer-star Oprah Winfrey and producer-director Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") have created something huge, bold, and terribly perplexing in adapting Toni Morrison's 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen.
"Beloved" is many things at once. It is a Gothic ghost story. It is a family drama. It is a reminder of the inhuman cruelty that was institutionalized slavery. But, most of all, I think it is a fable about love and the potential destructive power of not being able to let go of those we love once they are gone. The story takes the bond between mother and daughter and shows the potential dark side of those emotions--how love can make us do things that are terrible and murderous, and yet they are the only things that can be done at the time.
The film takes place in the rural areas just outside Cincinnati, Ohio several years after the Civil War. Winfrey stars as Sethe, a strong, proud ex-slave who ran away from her owner at the ironically titled Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky. Escaping to the arms of her mother-in-law, the wonderfully spiritual Baby Suggs (Beah Richards), Sethe makes a life for herself in a ramshackle house on 124 Bluestone Road, a life she couldn't have back in Kentucky where she was a slave.
However, there are some things in our past that we cannot escape from, and this is one of the movie's strongest points. The house on Bluestone Road is haunted by a restless, childish spirit, and this is one the first thing we see in the film--mirrors breaking, tables moving, pots falling, the family dog being hurled and mutilated by unseen hands. All of this is so powerful and horrifying that it drives Sethe's two sons away, never to return, leaving only she and her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise). Eight years later, a fellow ex-slave from Sweet Home named Paul D (Danny Glover) comes to live with them, and they create for themselves a family, despite the uneasy haunting in the house.
But everything changes when a strange young girl who calls herself Beloved shows up one day. Sethe and Denver accept her into the house, but Paul D is suspicious. Something is not right about her ... not natural. She acts as though she were retarded--her speech is forced and slurred, she has little or no coordination or motor abilities, and she clings constantly to Sethe like a lost child--but there is something ominous about her. Paul D wants to know where she came from ... how did she get here? ... and why, if she walked all the way like she claims, were her shoes new and her feet soft and unmarked?
As it turns out, Beloved is not who anyone thinks she is. She is part of Sethe's past, a past that she doesn't (or can't) talk about. Beloved is a kind of haunting in the flesh, a stark memory of something Sethe did years ago, something bloody and vile and so necessary that only a mother with unconditional love could have had the terrible strength to do. It is this act of awful love that Sethe cannot escape from, and it could be her undoing.
"Beloved" takes place as much in the landscape of the soul as it does in the landscape of rural Ohio, and director Jonathan Demme captures both perfectly. He and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto give the film a powerful visual sense, alternating between somber tones of gray, blue, and brown for the present-tense scenes, and using harsh, almost blinding yellows to capture the flashbacks. Demme relies heavily on the extreme close-up and the shot-reverse shot for framing dialogue between characters. Often, he frames each actor's face so that it fills the screen and looks directly out into the audience, essentially forcing the viewer into the story.
The film runs almost three hours (which could have and should have been shorter), and the pace alternates between long, slow stretches of drama and quick, flash-cuts of horror, both real and fictional. Demme opens the film with a Gothic haunting scene that is as sudden and terrifying as anything I have seen. But he also hits us with brief flashes of slavery and all the savagery that went with it. Although Demme forces these moments home in graphic naturalism, often from the sufferer's point of view, he doesn't dwell on them. He knows these images are strong enough that we need only a glimpse them to begin understanding. Of course, we can never understand fully what it meant to suffer in the way Sethe does, but "Beloved" takes us to the beginning of that path and shows just how treacherous it is.
Despite the tragedy, there are moments in "Beloved" that are beautiful. I'll never forget the impact of the scene where Sethe, after having finally escaped the plantation and made it home to Baby Suggs, is reunited with her children. By far the most visually and emotionally stirring scene is a flashback showing Baby Suggs in the woods, preaching messages of hope and faith to dozens of listeners--"kiss your hands ... love your heart"--and asking them to dance and sing and praise their freedom. Demme spins the camera slowly around the lyrical scene, allowing it to simply play for itself.
Because "Beloved" is essentially a drama about four people, the performances are of the utmost importance. Winfrey is a revelation as Sethe; she disappears so completely into the character that it is easy to forget who she is in reality. The same goes for Danny Glover, who shows both fear and compassion as Paul D. However, the real discoveries are the two young girls, Kimberly Elise as Denver and Thandie Newton as Beloved.
Newton's performance is heavily reliant on body language and the use of her soulful eyes--Demme utilizes the power of her innocent/malevolent gaze to burn through the screen in the same way he used Anthony Hopkins' glare in "The Silence of the Lambs." Elise's performance is less showy than Newton's, but in some ways it is more important. In the last half hour of the film, the narrative focuses more and more on Denver, and we begin to realize that it is her character that will offer the greatest hope for the future.
And, in the end, "Beloved" is a movie with hope. Despite all the horrible things the characters are subjected to during the narrative, it ends on a note of hope, that it has not all be in vain. Suffering is a terrible thing and the characters here suffer a great deal emotionally, physically, and spiritually. But, as Epicurus wrote, "The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it."
©1998 James Kendrick