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Review: Beloved

Jonathan Demme’s film was apparently too powerful for audiences to handle back in 1998

Photo: Touchstone Pictures

Filled with some of the most extraordinary images of recent years, Jonathan Demme’s Beloved was apparently too powerful for audiences to handle back in 1998. Producer and star Oprah Winfrey delivers a strong-willed and richly complex performance as escaped slave Sethe, a free woman who survived the brutality of a Kentucky plantation and now lives free in her ghost-infested home. Preserving her secrets, and keeping her surviving daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) under lock-and-key, she welcomes former slave Paul D. (Danny Glover) into her home as well as a mysterious, child-like woman named Beloved (Thandie Newton), who may be the lingering spirit of Sethe’s murdered child. There’s substantial and vital social drama in this three-hour epic, but Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto keep Beloved mystical, spiritual, and emotional. Their stunning, full-on close-ups of actors’ faces are not only expressive, they convey the weight of guilt upon these former slaves attempting to move beyond their past horrors and their present strife. When those faces break into smiles, Beloved has already earned the beauty of its fleeting joys and sought adorations. Set against the backdrop of a house and yard cut off from the road, and infused with glistening flashbacks of rich, oversaturated memories (the gathering for prayer, the slaying of a child, the birth of a baby girl), Beloved is filled with visual cues that represent something richer: the fullness of one’s life experience. There’s also lingering pain, mostly found in Newton’s weird shock-performance as Beloved, a freaky girl first seen covered in ladybugs and croaking in anger/agony. Accompanied by a hot red light when she imposes herself upon her newfound family, she smashes through domesticity and confronts the survivors of slavery with what they had to endure, what they still endure, and what they can’t ignore. Accused of being hyperbolic and too serious (not unlike the Toni Morrison masterpiece from which it was adapted), Beloved should be praised for treating its subject matter with unflinching temerity and oft-profound visual grace.

Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall Director: Jonathan Demme Screenwriter: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese Distributor: Touchstone Pictures Running Time: 172 min Rating: R Year: 1998 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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