In the hands of director Jonathan Demme, Beloved is a tale of possession. The film deals frankly with the psychic and physical scars left from a legacy of human ownership, which linger long after a former slave is "free." But it's also very much a ghost story.
Whatever ambiguities Toni Morrison created in her novel, in this version, Beloved (Thandie Newton) is clearly a demon, forged from fierce devotion and bitter resentment. In a haunting vision of birth and reverse baptism, Beloved emerges from seemingly primordial waters, clad from head to toe in formal mourning clothes, and heads straight to the Ohio home of Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), hell-bent on claiming a lifetime's worth of maternal affection.
Before Beloved's arrival, the long-ostracized Sethe was beginning to form a makeshift family with Paul D (Danny Glover), also once a slave at "Sweet Home," and her wary, introverted daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise). Beloved's presence stirs up painful, intense and long-buried emotions and memories. But she's also a patently unreal character -- Newton pushes Beloved's awkward, childlike physicality to near-laughable lengths -- and the audience deciphers who she is long before the other characters do.
As good a director as Jonathan Demme is, he can't quite tackle all the opposing forces at work in this richly complex text, and doesn't blend magic and realism as effectively as do Eve's Bayou or To Sleep with Anger. At nearly three hours, Beloved drags in some places but it mostly soars. Demme doesn't manufacture moments of uplifting heroism, choosing instead an intimate approach -- greatly enhanced by Rachel Portman's haunting, heartfelt music -- to show the effects of institutionalized degradation on the families of survivors.
The heart of the film is Sethe's memory of backwoods sermons by Baby Suggs (Beah Richards) -- shot through with a piercing radiance by gifted cinematographer Tak Fujimoto -- which captures the texture of the tenuous life of these one-time slaves, equal parts harsh reality and soaring hope.
Gradually, Beloved emerges as the story of Denver, a child born in the faith of a new life who must discover the courage to live it.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.