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Movie Review: Beloved

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Written by Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks

Based on the novel by Toni Morrison

With Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise

Once in a rare while there comes a motion picture which is so unlike everything else that it calls for a special word, one I try to use carefully and rarely. Very few movies deserve it, but Beloved does; and the word which I have in mind is "unwatchable."

What is particularly shocking is that it's not bad the way most bad movies are; it's not an inanely bad movie (where everyone involved can't even half-heartedly pretend they actually know what they are doing - for example, Quest for Camelot), and it's not an aggressively bad movie (where the main strategy is nauseating viewers by throwing at them millions of dollars of special effects - for example, Armageddon). No, Beloved is a rare kind of a bad movie which requires top talent, creative independence, and a true originality. Only the presence of these three ingredients can sometimes result in such jaw-droppingly wrong-headed creative miscalculation.

Beloved is - or at least should be - the story of Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a woman who has escaped from the brutal life at the Kentucky Sweet Home plantation, and now lives with her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) on a farm in Cincinnati, haunted by the specters of her past. Soon, she's visited by an old friend, Paul D. (Danny Glover); and, after that, a mysterious young woman who calls herself Beloved (Thandie Newton).

The story has a lot of potential: The time period (Restoration) is truly fascinating, and the theme (slavery of bodies and souls) has staggering resonance. A similar theme was dealt with in last year's Amistad, which, somewhat surprisingly, chose to work in the mold of a courtroom drama, and more surprisingly, succeeded. Beloved also works in the mold of a genre film, a - here comes the shock - horror film.

And no, I don't mean horror as in "horror of slavery," although this is on screen as well, in numerous brief hallucinatory flashbacks. No, Beloved uses the cinematic language of such heartfelt, thought-provoking films as The Exorcist and Poltergeist, replete with all kinds of bodily fluids gushing across the screen, levitating pies, scary red lighting, ominous close-ups of various sharp household tools (axe, ice pick), and squished-out eyeballs. The point of this all, I presume, is to provide a visceral representation of the ghosts literally haunting Sethe; but it ends up running the whole gamut from ridiculous to ludicrous. It's very hard to feel the pain of a former slave when this pain is manifested by a ghostly visitor moaning, contorting, and vomiting.

If Beloved was simply a schizophrenic melange of a heartfelt drama and a supernatural horror story, it would have been off-putting; as it is, it is simply a torture to sit through, unstructured, unfocused, and way overlong. What it lacks in depth, it certainly gains in length, ending up as one of the most painful movies in my memory to sit through.

Maybe it is caused by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) shooting Beloved the way he did, without rehearsals; maybe it is the fault of the script, penned by three screenwriters without communicating with each other; maybe it's caused by the slavish adherence to the novel. In any case, the narrative structure of this film is, simply, a total mess. The film can't even present a consistent point of view. Initially, the person with whom the audience can identify is Paul D., as he arrives at Sethe's house in the beginning of the film. He's an outsider, and he, just like the viewers, enters Sethe's world without really knowing what's going on. About half-way into the film he exits abruptly, and the film focuses on Sethe. But the viewers won't have much time to get used to the new protagonist, since Sethe is soon forgotten as well, and then Beloved becomes Denver's story. Fortunately, the last change works, for the singular reason that Denver really wants to escape her mother's house and the attendant visitors from beyond the grave, and at this point that was precisely what I wanted. In any case, Denver is the only real character in the movie anyway; Kimberly Elise is astonishingly versatile in this part, and Denver is the only one who undergoes any change in the course of the film.

Not that I can complain about the other actors; Demme had made quite a reputation for himself as an actor's director (his last two movies brought three Best Actor Oscars to their leads), and if there's any area where he's in control, it's acting. Winfrey is tough, vulnerable, and totally unglamorous at the same time; Glover projects deep-rooted humanity; and Thandie Newton, as the title character, is ethereally beautiful, horrifying, and feral. She also has a truly grand entrance, crawling from the swamp, covered by thousands of ladybugs. (A side note: These are real ladybugs, not computer-generated insects, and I was very much amused to read conflicting reports about their number; I've seen sources that say five thousand, fifty thousand, and four hundred thousand. I wonder how they handled them, with the "no animals were harmed" disclaimer and all)

But Beloved is a creature of the moment, and similarly, Beloved the movie only works on the level of disconnected moments. A good deal of scenes make quite an impact, but they absolutely refuse to work together to form any kind of a cohesive whole. The best example of this is the scene when Sethe's dark secret is revealed. If I saw this scene just by itself (or in a better movie), it would have given me nightmares: It's brutal, shocking, tender, and utterly unavoidable. As it is, one simply can not take it seriously enough, surrounded as it is with ghostly moans and supernatural weirdness. Also, Demme tips his hand a bit too often, and one can guess this secret if sufficient attention is paid to the scene which features (again, as a clumsy metaphor only) a close-up of two mating turtles.

Oh, just forget it. It's hopeless. If there is anything that makes me indignant it is movies that address a complex and important subject, take the "Look at me!" stance, and wallow in self-importance, while neglecting even the basic screenwriting/directing material. (One could make a valid point that cinema doesn't have to be used as a narrative-based medium, but this is somewhat out of the scope of this review). At least Saving Private Ryan (another movie that made a very similar impression on me) had those action sequences, which made it more or less worthwhile. Beloved, despite - or maybe even because of - all the talent involved, ends up being simply unwatchable.