By the Book

Beloved
Based on the novel by Toni Morrison. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, and Kimberly Elise. Opens Friday, Oct. 16, at the Galaxy.

An honorable failure, Jonathan Demme's film of Toni Morrison's Beloved falls awkwardly between ghost story and historical drama. Viewers unfamiliar with Morrison's book will be completely baffled for the first 20 minutes or so of this nearly three-hour film. Those who stick with it will be rewarded with some powerful scenes and performances that, unfortunately, never cohere into a unified work.

Even the most cursory look at Morrison's novel reveals an au-thor in full command of her language and craft. Demme, who's certainly proven himself a fine filmmaker in the past, is less eloquent in his medium this time out. While the film's events and much of its dialogue come straight from the book, in this instance fidelity is not enough -- Demme and his associates needed to find a cinematic equivalent to Morrison's blend of history, fable, and stream-of-consciousness plunge into mental torment.

Beloved instead oscillates between standard Hollywood realism -- with broad, overscaled performances by stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover -- and bizarre, fantastic sequences we are meant to take as literal depictions of events. As a result two different movies struggle to take hold, and neither can.

Glover's arrival at Winfrey's household, very early in the film, illustrates this failing. It's 1873, 18 years after Sethe (Winfrey) and her children fled slavery to this home on the outskirts of Cincinnati. An earlier scene has indicated that the house is haunted -- though by what is unclear. Paul D (Glover) and Sethe catch up, via Morrison's stylized dialogue, on events of the past two decades. (Not until much later in the film do we understand the depth of Paul D and Sethe's mutual history.)

Then Paul D enters the house, which springs aglow like a Halloween pumpkin. Before long he's being assaulted in the kitchen with what look like outtakes from Poltergeist: Crockery smashes, tables whirl, stoves threaten. The house's hostility is never explained, even after the angry family ghost that caused the ruckus evidently takes flesh in the person of "Beloved" (Thandie Newton).

This strange creature, at once helpless and feral, emerges fully grown from a local stream. She may be Sethe's long-dead daughter. She may or may not be real. We never find out for sure.

Beloved thus suffers from a confusing clash between the mundane and the incredible. When the real and the unreal characters are on the same screen they seem to be in different movies. Glover's boisterous naturalism sits particularly uneasily with the rest of the film, while at the same time giving Beloved much of its heart. Newton's character, meanwhile, remains a mystery: at once menacing, mad, needy, and sweet.

In the pivotal role of Sethe's decidedly real other daughter, Kimberly Elise contributes the film's best performance, simply by underplaying her reactions to the many extraordinary events she witnesses. Sixteen-year-old Kessia Kordelle is also very effective in a small part as a mad white girl who helps Sethe during her flight north to Ohio. It's characteristic of Beloved, though, that we learn nothing of this woman or why she's wandering, crazed and scratched, through the Kentucky woods.

Oprah Winfrey's talk show persona didn't weigh on my viewing of her performance here; I've only channel-surfed through her program. My only point of comparison for her performance in Beloved is her "Harpo" in Spielberg's The Color Purple in 1985. She was effective then in a showy part. She's adequate now in the central role of Sethe, particularly in the few scenes in which she can play a normal person. But Sethe is also the bridge between the film's two realms, and as the ghost-burdened character she is for most of the picture Winfrey is doomed to shuttle between unplayable emotional extremes. A professional like Alfre Woodard might have brought shadings to a very difficult role that Winfrey, for all her good intentions, misses.

Good intentions also sank Jonathan Demme's last film, Philadelphia. Since early in his career, with films like Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980), Demme has gifted us with pleasing populist cross-sections of America in movies suggestive of Robert Altman's work without the bile. It follows that the scenes in Beloved illustrating the historical reality of slavery are among the film's best, blowing its ghost story off the screen. Like most Hollywood filmmakers Demme -- who also directed The Silence of the Lambs -- thrives when there's something real to film, for example the wooden boat flooding with water as escapee slave Sethe struggles to give birth.

Beloved is an object lesson on the need to reimagine a literary work, even a very successful one, when transferring it to celluloid. Morrison's source material is treated here with too much reverence, and only a radical rethinking could have made this novel work on film.

 
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