The matriarch of the piece is Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a runaway ex-slave from a Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home who, at the time the film begins in 1873, has settled in rural Ohio with her three children. Sethe's legacy of slavery harrows her entire existence: Years before, she killed her baby girl rather than let her live in bondage, and the baby's squalling ghost haunts her home, driving out Sethe's two young sons. Her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) continues to live with her, but rarely ventures outside the ramshackle house.
Paul D (Danny Glover), a friend from Sweet Home, arrives one day at Sethe's doorstep. An almost saintly figure, he has a calming effect on the household, notably on Sethe, and gradually the two attempt to make a life together. But the horrors of slavery are always with them; their faces are permanently wracked with pain. When a young girl calling herself Beloved (Thandie Newton) shows up, Sethe takes her in, and her makeshift family is once again thrown into disarray. Beloved is a wraithlike woman-child, with smooth, unlined features. Feral, almost preverbal, she comes to be regarded as the embodiment of Sethe's dead baby now grown up. Her presence has an accusatory force; she represents the horrors of what slavery can do to a person's spirit. Sethe and the others may try to move on in their lives, but Beloved is the horror and the rage that can't stay buried.
This, at least, is how we are meant to feel. But too often what we experience is closer to an ex-slave's fantasia on The Exorcist. Morrison's novel also has its lurid aspects, but her poetic flights and her deep sense of sorrow take the story way beyond pulp. The novel is an aggregation of myth and mystery, and it gets inside the almost hallucinatory way in which fear tears one up.
The movie prods at this as well, but in a far more literal way. Demme can't come up with a visual equivalent to Morrison's prose, so he falls back on a more conventional approach to horror. This is, after all, the director who gave us not only Melvin and Howard (1980) but also The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It's one thing to be caught up in the firestorm of Beloved's presence on the page, but on the screen we often end up with a freak show that brings us down to earth with a thud.
Not that Demme had an easy task before him. Beloved--the wraith, the avenger, the conscience--is a character so overloaded with symbolism, she practically collapses from the weight of it all. She's too much of a bad thing. Newton has shown herself in other films (Flirting, The Leading Man) to be a graceful, lyrical actress, but here she is encouraged to give a performance that ranks right up there with Jodie Foster's dithery calisthenics as the feral free spirit in Nell. Newton drools and drops her jaw and lets her eyes pop; she sways and totters and glides. Her fragmented, bellicose doublespeak comes across as a kind of actor's studio exercise for the hearing-impaired. A little of this stuff goes a long way--and there's a lot of it.
The other actors perform more convincingly. Yes, that's Oprah on the screen, but it's not "Oprah." She optioned Morrison's novel upon its publication; making a movie of it has been a mission for her, and her determination shows in her performance. It's a bit too held-in and stolid, too righteously closed-off, but it's an honorable piece of work. Winfrey is a real actress, and she knows how to fold herself into Sethe's agony without indulging in a lot of phony histrionics. She works very well with the other actors, especially Glover, who accomplishes here what acting talent alone can't provide--he has an enthralling, becalming presence. Like Beloved, Glover's Paul D is freighted with metaphor, but he wears it much more lightly. He is the symbolic Good Man who does not run out on his woman. He embodies the decency that survives slavery's degradations.
There are other actors worth watching here. As Denver, Elise has an ardent inquisitiveness, even in her early scenes, when the character appears to be almost as pathologically indrawn as Beloved. Later, when she ventures outside and lets herself expand, the bright sun upon her is matched by her glow from within. In smaller character parts, Beah Richards, as the mother of Sethe's long-absent husband Halle, and Irma P. Hall, as a community matron, really shine. What faces for the camera these women have! When they're on-screen we can't get enough of them. It's a jolting experience to be cut away from one of their close-ups.
Beloved tries to be an anthem of the spirit, and that's just about the most difficult--and unfilmable--thing you can attempt in the movies. Demme stretches things out to epic length, but what was really needed here was an epic imagination.
Directed by Jonathan Demme. Written by Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. Based on the novel by Toni Morrison. Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, and Kimberly Elise. Opens Friday.