Beloved
directed by Jonathan Demme
(Buena Vista, 1998)

In 1987, award-winning novelist Toni Morrison rocked the literary world with Beloved, the story of a runaway slave who kills her infant daughter rather than see her raised in bondage and used, commercially and sexually, by whatever master happens to own her.

In 1998, award-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme rocked the world to sleep with a three-hour adaptation of the same -- despite a high-powered cast, slick production values and some unexpected special effects.

Things fall apart quickly for both Demme and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Sethe, the devoted mother whose 28 days of freedom led to her unspeakable, yet defensible, act of horror. That's because viewers know little about Sethe's household -- too little until it's almost too late.

All we're told is that it's 1865, and all we see is a dog flying across a room and nearly losing an eye and a leg in the crash landing that follows.

Only with the arrival several years later of Paul D. (Danny Glover), a long-ago compatriot of Sethe, do we get a sense of where Sethe came from and why she lives a marginal existence with her only remaining child, Denver (Kimberly Elise), who seems destined for an even more marginal existence, despite the fact that slavery has ended.

Then things get really complicated with a second unexpected arrival, that of a young girl (Thandie Newton), an unearthly being who hints at being the reincarnation of Sethe's long-dead child.

To his credit, Demme tries to speed up the process of exposition with a combination of bizarre lighting, haunting music and flying furniture. But the result is more like The Exorcist than anything Morrison had in mind -- until Demme brings in the buzzing flies. Then it's more like Amityville Horror.

Lost in this special-effects extravaganza is any real sense of Sethe's past; this comes about only slowly and erratically over the next two and half hours, only to disappear once again into a whirlwind of visual magic, followed by a gratuitous epilogue -- a feel-good ending involving Denver and Paul D. that taxes an already suffering audience beyond the breaking point.

Morrison, in her novel, went to great lengths to explain how Sethe came of age under a rare enlightened owner who allowed his slaves not only to marry, but to live with their spouses and raise their families as a unit, and how, with the death of that owner, she became the property of a ruthless sadist who humiliated Sethe beyond even a slave's belief and drove her and her family to flight.

Demme fails to touch on any but the most salacious or brutal of those details, and the result is a superficial film about the deepest of all subjects: love and death. Ultimately, by treating Beloved as a haunted house film instead of a haunted person film, the director fails Winfrey, Glover and the audience by an even greater margin than Morrison succeeded.

If you have 172 minutes with nothing more important to do, you might want to check it out. If not, I suggest you watch two other less-well-known movies that might take you somewhere. There are lots of them out there.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



Buy Beloved from Amazon.com.