In an utterly restrained performance, [Oprah] Winfrey sets the slow, mournful tone of the reluctant survivor, while director Johnathan Demme tells Morrison's story slowly, through images and words.
The first frightening scene of "Beloved" makes it clear that Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), the central figure of Toni Morrison's novel, will never be allowed to forget her past. The horrors she has experienced are visited on her regularly in supernatural visions that cut jaggedly and repeatedly into her life until we realize that this family has never known peace and never will.
At the end of the Civil War, Sethe lived in freedom with her husband and children for a very short time. Their world ended at the hands of a group of white men who rode onto their farm and used their power to destroy the defenseless family. They were property, and they had escaped. On that day, the terrified Sethe acted to protect her children. By her own hand, she took the white men's cruelty and seared it into her own soul.
Eighteen years later, Sethe lives with her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), in a house on the well-traveled road to Cincinnati (and this road is one of the few awkward notes in the movie), where passersby who have heard her story stop to point out the outcast. Only two people will walk up that path. First, Paul D (Danny Glover), a fellow slave at the plantation, Sweet Home, comes to settle for a while. And then, Beloved.
Dressed in black, covered with bugs, drooling and grunting, Beloved (Thandie Newton) crashes into their lives. Beloved is not a memory, but the ghostly possibility of Sethe's dead older daughter, and she unsettles whatever had begun to spring to new life in this house. She usurps Denver's place in her mother's heart and undermines Paul D's newfound peace. She forces the audience into a state of profound discomfort for the entire length of the film. That discomfort is Toni Morrison's vision of the barbarous legacy of slavery.
Morrison never lets us breathe easily. Whenever we drift into the comfortable hope that things might go well for the gentle Paul D and Sethe, the novelist throws us instantly back into the permanent damage that could never be erased by the Emancipation Proclamation. Cruel ghosts, memories, and Beloved make recovery a state for future generations, not this one.
Morrison's poetry, which is observed here with reverence, is channeled to us through the rhythms of this faithful film. It comes to a resounding peak, a near hopefulness, in the preaching of Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs (Beah Richards), as she ministers to all comers in a clearing in the misted landscape. Her words imply that there might be a future for the wounded. Even then, this movie avoids sentimentality.
It is a tribute to Oprah Winfrey that Morrison's rhythms are rarely broken. In an utterly restrained performance, Winfrey sets the slow, mournful tone of the reluctant survivor, while director Johnathan Demme tells Morrison's story slowly, through images and words. Their movie asks and answers vividly the question of how anyone can live with memories like these.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 498
Studio : Touchstone Pictures
Rating : R
Running time : 2h52m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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