At 124 Bluestone Road, a lonely, ramshackle dwelling in post-Civil War rural Ohio where the runaway slave Sethe ekes out a meager existence with her sole surviving daughter, Denver, the dead are wider awake than the living. The house is haunted like you wouldn't believe, as the itinerant Paul D, who coveted Sethe from afar back when both labored on the gruesomely named Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, discovers when he comes to visit. Walls shiver, the house turns red with rage, and a troublemaking spirit – said to belong to Beloved, the daughter Sethe lost under dreadful circumstances long ago – does nasty things to the griddle cakes. Sethe (played by Oprah Winfrey with a workmanlike lack of pomp that lends her character dignity even when she pees in a field) is a woman of iron – the kind who, when her two sons flee in terror for good and her dog's eye pops out of its socket, calmly stuffs it back in and carries on. She has made her peace with the invisible houseguest, and when Paul D (Danny Glover) joins the menage, she imagines that she has banished the past from her safe cocoon. Until, that is, Denver (Kimberly Elise) rescues a feral young woman (Thandie Newton), dressed in brand-new clothes and covered in insects, and brings her to the house, where she spells out the name Beloved in a rasping voice, makes herself right at home, and stirs enough mischief to bring heavy secrets shrieking from the rafters.
Jonathan Demme's Beloved is permanently heated to the boil. Rightly so, for the terrain of Toni Morrison's magisterial novel, on which the movie is based, is not the politics of slavery but its private agonies, the torture of evil turned inward against the self. Not for Morrison the sadly smiling nobility of the inspirational slave (see Roots), halo'd by long suffering and battling through adversity to freedom under the wing of sensitive whites (see Amistad). There is nobility in Beloved, but it is deeply compromised, a dogged endurance scarred not only by the blows of overseers, but by the survivor's willful suppression of her past.
It's easy to see what, aside from the echoes of her own hardscrabble youth, attracted Winfrey to Morrison's novel. The real-life story on which Beloved is based, of a slave who killed her own children rather than return them to the plantation from which she had fled, seems the very stuff of the distress that daily feeds the gaping maw of Oprah. And only someone with Winfrey's industry clout could have gotten such a tale (too black, too sad, too long) within spitting distance of a studio pitch. As it is, the talk-show queen spent 11 years nursing the project through rejection, inertia and a sticky arbitration over a disputed screenwriting credit. Evidently she had in mind a director who could handle extremity. Lucky for her and the movie that Australian filmmakers Peter Weir and Jane Campion – the whiz kids of weird – both passed: Though both can tell a mean horror story, neither one knows how to tell it straight, or would care to.
Jonathan Demme's a believer: His Philadelphia may have been one of the more naive films about gay life, but it was also one of the most thrillingly full-hearted. And though the director is hardly a man to turn his back on the formal possibilities of a good ghost story, he's not one to undermine it with the disclaiming snickers so many of his hipper contemporaries hide behind. In any case, it couldn't have been hard to keep faith with Morrison's ornate story structure and multiple realities, the great surges in time, space and point of view. As much a gothic tale as it is an account of the chronically inflamed unsafety that is the slave's predicament, Beloved is inherently cinematic. Demme pushes to the limit the flashback shards of Sethe's memory – the brutal way in which she lost her breast milk, the tree of permanent scars etched on her back by a terrible beating. Unfettered by the skittish tact that inhibits so many films about “the black experience,” Demme fully indulges the friendly, exuberant sexuality that courses between Sethe and Paul D, an easygoing man with a gift for soothing and arousing women all at once.
Yet the violence and the sex are disciplined, the livid colors of the dramatic scenes tempered (by Demme's extraordinary cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto) with quieter light for the landscape's desolate beauty, and washed through by Rachel Portman's wistfully lovely score. The director has also kept the performances restrained, even matter-of-fact (Elise's sensitive rendering of the lonesome Denver, so eager for experience and connection, should make her career), except for two crucial roles that limn the story's ecstatic abandon, as well as its sense of tragedy. Veteran actress Beah Richards (an Academy Award nominee for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) radiates a wonderful authority, at once tough and lyrical, as Denver's departed grandmother, Baby Suggs, who held wild assemblies in the woods that kept the slave community together through the worst of times. If Baby Suggs is the voice of resilience and survival, Beloved's is the howl of loss. The Australian actress Thandie Newton (Sally Hemings in the ill-fated Jefferson in Paris) plays Beloved straight over the top in a performance that will leave some viewers creased with laughter – rolling her eyes and contorting her features with an ardor one often sees in a pretty actress striving to be taken seriously. Yet what looks like overkill is of a piece with the movie's melodramatic intensity, and as it builds toward the equivocal liberation of its conclusion, Beloved draws Sethe into a symbiotic madness that brings to the surface, at last, the two women's bottomless pain and desire for reclamation.
If Beloved has a fault, it is its length. The movie grows wearyingly repetitive after two of its nearly three hours. And though Demme, perhaps at Winfrey's instigation, has lightened Morrison's ending with uplift, Beloved is a somber story that may not take with audiences black or white. The movie is being heavily marketed as Winfrey's film, perhaps wisely, given that she's such a potent popularizer: Making Morrison's novel an Oprah Book Club pick did far more for its sales than did the author's Pulitzer. If nothing else, Beloved the movie has done the unthinkable in newsstand philosophy – put a black woman on the covers of two major glossies. Time's writer gushed astonishment at how different Winfrey's “deglamourized” performance is from her Oprah persona. What did he expect? Laugh tracks? Slave chic by Armani? Almost: Vogue's puff piece on Oprah was padded (it must be said, with the diva's full cooperation) with “an enchanting tableau vivant” of the three female stars clad in the ball gowns their characters might have worn had they not been slaves: Oprah resplendent in Armani, Elise and Newton in Isaac Mizrahi, which “unexpectedly pairs cotton 'horsehair' with silk satin.”
And they say our culture lacks a proper respect for history.