Directed by Jonathan Demme. Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberley Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall, Irma P. Hall. (1998, R, 172 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 16, 1998
The funny thing about the present is how quickly and doggedly it becomes the past. The past is always nipping at our heels, chasing us into the future, and shadowing our present. And the present is little more than the total accumulation of the past merged with the unwritten potential of the future. The damned thing about the past, however, is how it can catch up to you in the present and bite you on the ass. For Sethe (Winfrey), the former slave in this film version of Toni Morrison's prize-winning novel Beloved, the past is “the tree on her back.” It's a richly metaphoric image for the weight of her history and its tangled branches into her future; it's also the literal shape of the permanent scars lashed into her back by the wretched hand of slavery. Set mostly in 1873 in rural Ohio outside Cincinnati, Beloved is a story about how the cruelties of the past continue to impinge on the present, about how the ugly consequences of slavery do not vanish by presidential proclamation. It's storytelling at its most irresistible, a sinewy saga that seamlessly snakes the boundary lines separating ghost tale from family epic and historical drama from psychological subjectivism. At nearly three hours running time, the movie covers a lot of turf though it infrequently ventures past the front gate of Sethe's home at 124 Bluestone Road. Flashbacks are essential to the way Beloved tells its story, explanatory snatches of the past are expertly insinuated into the narrative through deft editing maneuvers and subtly altered film stocks. Supernaturalistic flourishes reside side by side with naturalistic detail. Her house, says Sethe, “ain't evil, just sad.” Bit by bit, we learn proud, self-reliant Sethe's history: the details of the plantation-life horrors that drove her to commit a desperate act of violence, and the joyous embrace of the future that her mother-in-law's sermons in the backwoods inspire. To tell too much here would pre-empt the pleasure of uncovering the story's mysteries on their own terms. Though rest assured that the mysteries are not all horrific explications of the twisted legacy of slavery but also include buoyant demonstrations of the transcendent powers of love. The performances of all the central and secondary characters match the passionate intensity of the film's behind-the-scenes collaborators: notably, director Jonathan Demme, DP Tak Fujimoto, production designer Kristi Zea, editors Carol Littleton and Andy Keir, composer Rachel Portman, vocalist Oumou Sangare, and writers Akousa Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. Winfrey enriches her well-documented lifetime of accomplishments with this strong, stripped-of-Oprahness performance that astutely dodges the traps of sentimentalism to create a character more hauntingly evocative. Glover, as far as I'm concerned, can do a dozen more Lethal Weapon movies if it means he'll pause every so often and do work as moving, intelligent, and ingratiating as what he does here. Elise's assured, emotionally varied performance as Sethe's daughter Dakota (she's the only character who undergoes any significant transformation in the story) promises that she is a newcomer from whom we'll be seeing much, much more over the coming years. And as the story's ghost girl Beloved, Newton seethes with a feral intensity that's an unsettling combination of frightening Exorcist child demon and endearing wild-child mannerisms and naïveté. It's true that Beloved comes packaged with “Oscar” written all over it, and with such obvious pre-sells it's always wise to be cautious. Yet it's no understatement to call Beloved one of the best movies of the year.