The movie Beloved is rather like it’s title character: unusual, disorienting and not quite what you’d expect. However, that’s not to say that the film isn’t good (which it is), but rather that it’s a difficult beast to classify. It’s eerily supernatural, yet with an earthy realism. It’s intimate in scale, and yet epic in scope.
Oprah Winfrey stars as Sethe, a woman who ran away from slavery eighteen years earlier, and now lives on the outskirts on Cincinnati. She lives with her antisocial daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), as well as a mysterious poltergeist, in their house at 124 Bluestone Road.
Yes, you read that right, “poltergeist”. Their house is haunted. And while the Amityville-goings-on might scare away anyone with common sense, Sethe is simply tired of running. Besides, the spirit which shakes their house and squeezes their dog isn’t evil…”just sad”.
But things are stirred up by the arrival of two visitors. The first is Paul D (Danny Glover), a weary man who knew Sethe when they were both slaves at the Sweet Home Plantation. The second is more mysterious, an asthmatic girl (Thandie Newton) who moves like an epileptic puppet and calls herself “Beloved” in a croaking voice.
Jonathan Demme directs this adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel with a hallucinatory flair. Some scenes are oversaturated, others faded. Colors glow, the angles shift… it’s almost as if the camera is possessed, as well as the house. Yet, through it all, we are able to connect and bond with the characters, and experience the horrors and triumphs of their story.
Oprah Winfrey could have her pick of roles, and certainly could have picked a more glamorous one than Sethe, but it would have been hard to find a stronger character. Wounded with scars deeper than the welts on her back, Sethe is a complex, multilayered character. Many an actress might have stumbled in the role, but Oprah is up to the challenge, and delivers Sethe’s many facets.
Danny Glover isn’t as lucky. His Paul D is as downtrodden as Sethe, but not as nuanced. We learn little about him as the film progresses, and, eventually, he is just cast aside. We see his external feelings towards Sethe, Beloved and Denver, but rarely his motivations.
Thandie Newton is appropriately creepy and charming in the role of Beloved. Though, even at the end of the film, many things about her remain a mystery, it is a fascinating character, and a challenging role. Kimberly Elise’s Denver is less showy, but no less well acted. She is able to hold her own against all the otherworldly happenings in her house…just not ready to face the real world.
The storyline of Beloved is complex, but not convoluted. It does require that you pay attention, however. An ill-timed bathroom run during this 3-hour movie may mean you’ll be missing the keystone to the whole puzzle. Be warned.
Perhaps the best adjective to describe Beloved is “haunting”. Just as Sethe and Paul D are haunted by the past, and just as 124 Bluestone Road is haunted…so too, you’ll be haunted by Beloved.