The Oscar race, led by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, heats up with Jonathan Demme’s triumphant Beloved. This film of shocking immediacy and surpassing tenderness doesn’t flinch at taking on a big book (Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner), a big subject (slavery) and the big expectations that arise when TV phenom Oprah Winfrey serves as star and producer. It’s not surprising that the film suffers some structural damage while trying to wrestle the muscular lyricism of Morrison’s prose into a straight narrative. What is surprising — remarkable even — is that Beloved arrives onscreen with a minimum of dull virtue, gagging uplift and slick Hollywood gloss.
Credit Winfrey, who’s been struggling for ten years to get the film made, for not playing it safe. The movie takes nearly three draining, devastating hours to relate the reconstruction of Sethe, a former slave who works menial jobs to feed her children in rural Ohio circa 1873. Neighbors avoid Sethe’s run-down house, and for good reason: It’s haunted by the horrors of her slave past and the spiteful ghost of her murdered baby. Winfrey’s pitch-perfect performance as Sethe, besides being the stuff for which Oscars are molded, resonates with beauty, terror and the kind of truth that invades dreams. Detractors who resent her TV success as the anti-Jerry Springer, her wealth, her book clubs, her influence over popular culture will just have to shut up and eat crow. She’s that good.
And Demme, directing his first film since 1993’s Philadelphia, is in peak form. Moving from exploitation cheapies (Caged Heat) to blockbusters (The Silence of the Lambs) and documentaries (Haiti Dreams of Democracy), Demme has never viewed a sense of fun and a sense of purpose as being mutually exclusive. His films brim over with the messy sprawl of humanity, and “Beloved” is no exception. It’s maudlin gush that Demme can’t abide. Unlike Spielberg’s film of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” which earned Winfrey a deserved supporting-actress Oscar nomination, “Beloved” doesn’t do your crying for you. The film is a knot of fierce emotions that is left for the viewer to untangle. Make the effort. Although the by-committee screenplay from Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks can’t match Morrison’s flights into magic realism, it doesn’t sink to pat sermonizing, either.
A terrific cast keeps adding grace notes. As Paul D, a slave who, like Sethe, endured abuse on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky, Danny Glover radiates compassion and commands an anger that is blissfully free of smack-my-bitch-up clichés. After eighteen years, Paul D finds Sethe in the hope of starting a new life. Good luck. Sethe’s two older sons have been scared off by the ghost, and her daughter Denver, who is thrillingly played by star-in-the making Kimberly Elise, can’t bear to go outside.
Flashbacks detail Sethe’s beatings, her sexual abuse and the loss of her husband. Lisa Gay Hamilton invests her scenes as the young Sethe with agonizing expressiveness. And cinematographer Tak Fujimoto — a Demme regular — paints so hypnotically with light that the images become indelible. There’s the joy when Sethe, a pregnant runaway, delivers Denver with the help of a white girl and escapes across the river. And the madness when Sethe, mistakenly believing that her four children are about to be captured, tries to kill them in a woodshed, succeeding only in cutting the throat of the two-year-old girl she calls Beloved.
It is this tragedy that defines Sethe’s future, keeps Denver a prisoner in her house and reduces Beloved, in the view of critic Stanley Crouch, to a black-holo-caust novel that uses Sethe as an Aunt Medea. The film resists such harsh comparisons through Winfrey’s subtle immersion in Sethe’s pain and her community’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the dead as a contentious presence in life.
This is not to say that Demme experiences no difficulty in bringing a clanking literary symbol to life onscreen. He begins by showing Beloved as a red, undulating light that moves furniture, shatters mirrors and possesses the family dog. With the arrival of Paul D, Beloved takes human form: a vengeful two-year-old in the body of a woman who wreaks havoc with Sethe and Denver, and drags Paul D to bed (“Touch me on the inside”). It is not the fault of the gifted Thandie Newton, who plays her with a siren’s seductiveness and the croak of a child demon out of The Exorcist, that Beloved remains more of a concept than a character. But when the guilt-racked Sethe says she welcomes her lost child and Beloved answers with tenderness, “I know,” Newton pierces the heart.
Demme, with the help of seamless editing from Carol Littleton and Andy Keir, lets slavery and freedom collide with a thunder that rings true. The past that weighs so heavily on Sethe can be lightened: by the spirit of her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (the superb Beah Richards), who preached about “flesh that weeps and flesh that can laugh”; by the community of women who exorcise Beloved with their prayer chants; by Paul D, who tenderly kisses the tree of scars that whips have left on Sethe’s back; and by Denver, who finally steps off her front porch — a transcendent moment — into a world beyond her imagining, or Sethe’s. Winfrey and Elise achieve an alchemy as mother and daughter that goes beyond acting. Their sweet, leaping courage lets Beloved soar.