Beloved Haunts Film Lovers

Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberley Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (widescreen). Dolby Digital 5.1. 171 minutes. 1999. Touchstone Home Video 17243. R. $29.99.

Beloved is a ghost story, but it's not like any ghost story you've ever seen. It's not an easy movie to watch because it looks true horror—the national nightmare of slavery that haunts us still—unflinchingly in the eye. When it doesn't blink, it's hard for viewers not to long to turn away.

Based on Toni Morrison's powerful novel, Beloved tells the story of Sethe (Winfrey), an escaped slave haunted—literally—by what was done to her and by what she was driven to do. Her story unfolds both after the Civil War and in flashbacks leading up to the pivotal event in her life, in a series of scenes that are harrowing to watch. As her story plays itself out, Sethe is driven mad; but with the life she's led, there's no way she could remember and stay sane.

Beloved is blessed by a remarkable cast: Winfrey, in her return to the big screen, is masterful as the haunted Sethe; Danny Glover gives the performance of a lifetime as Paul D, an old friend and a gentle, if ultimately weak, companion. But the real standouts are the two young actresses who dominate the film: Thandie Newton as the otherworldly Beloved, and Kimberly Elise as Sethe's emotionally wounded daughter. These actors bond in an ensemble that keeps the film believable, even when it strays deep into occult territory.

Augmenting the acting ensemble's contributions, Jonathan Demme provides intelligent, sensitive direction, and Taj Fujimoto's sumptuous cinematography keeps it rooted in the real world. (The telecine transfer to DVD is one of the best I've seen.) And Rachael Portman's gospel-tinged soundtrack is a powerfully moving component of the storytelling process.

Beloved isn't a comforting film—these characters are trying to survive lives filled with pain and suffering—and it's not without flaw. At nearly three hours, it feels overlong; a judicious trimming of a quarter-hour or so would have tightened it considerably. There are also a few plot elements that, while remaining absolutely true to one of the most powerful novels of the latter half of this century, confuse the film's narrative flow. I understand Demme's reluctance to tamper with Morrison's work, but in filmmaking, too much reverence toward the source almost always dilutes a film's most essential storytelling elements.

That's an awfully minor cavil, given Beloved's many strengths. It may not be the easiest film to watch, but it's hard to conceive of any American movie of the last few years that has had more important things to say. In saying them, it creates a powerful, compelling work of art.