movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


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An afternoon talk show host begins a "book club," encouraging her audience to turn off the tubeóonce her credits rollóand crack open her personally-selected pages. The bestseller lists suddenly soar with obscure titles, thick-spined and quirky, most published years ago. Authors include criticís darlings: Lamb, Cleage, Hamilton, Hegi. In these stories, misfits make audacious heroines. The mother of a dwarf crashes her motorcycle at the same moment her husband is wounded in battle. A 257-pound teenager holds communion with a beached whale. A schizophrenic twin chops off his hand to save the human race. His sacrifice occurs on page one, in a public library.

Then thereís Beloved, Toni Morrisonís Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, optioned by Oprah Winfrey after its publication in 1987. The plot revolves around flashbacks concerning the lasting effects of slavery during the Reconstruction. Translating this interior novel to the screen seemed an impossibility. Its ghostly namesake may only exist in the minds of its main characters. The project, directed by Jonathan Demme (his first film since 1993ís Philadelphia) and co-produced by Oprah (who also stars), is the sole Morrison novel adapted as a movie and it will likely draw fans for its literary faithfulness. Unfortunately, such devotion also serves as the movie's downfall. Dragging three hours long, it transcribes the initial 25 minutes on an equal number of opening pages.

Oprah plays Sethe, the weary, middle-aged head of a household plagued figuratively (or literally) by the spirit of her past. When a teenage girl limps onto Setheís doorstep, mud-smeared and crawling with bugs, sporting fancy boots whose heels havenít been tested, the family succumbs to turmoil. Without question, Sethe adopts this feral woman-child who can hardly walk or speak. She calls herself "Beloved," the name chiseled on a tombstone belonging to Setheís elder daughter, long dead by mysterious means. Denver, the youngest girl, wonít step foot outside the ramshackle farmhouse. She welcomes her peculiar new playmate, a ghost-made-flesh who growls and drools, gobbles monstrous amounts of sweets and pops an eye from a dog.

Belovedís presence works as a catalyst, stirring up memory fragments from the novelís central trinity. Sethe recalls her tumultuous escape from the Kentucky Sweet Home plantation. In quick, color-manipulated flashbacks, we learn why a sap-oozing, choke-cherry "tree" grew from her back, how Denver came into the world underwater, and what a mother will pay to protect her children from slavery, a sentence worse than death.

Although flashbacks can propel a story forward in fiction, they normally work backwards onscreen. Beloved reveals bits of information in a teasing, tentative fashion. Onscreen, weíre caught between two realities, not unlike the spirit herself. The first is a plodding, present-day timeline thatís overshadowed by a frenetic past. Oprah (whose TV persona is difficult to discriminate from her film roles) declines into slow dementia while her former self (fiercely portrayed by Lisa Gay Hamilton) perseveres on the run. This jumbled structuring, methodically true to the novel, doesnít work in a classical screenplay context (written separately by Adam Brooks, Richard LaGravenese and Akosua Busia) that depends on rising tension and a character- transforming climax.

The film draws to the appropriate resolution, which feels emotionally spare, considering that Denver is the only one who develops. The fate of a rising black middle class rests in her decision to let go. As a ghost who canít be classified as good or evil, Beloved represents more universal themes than a single event in American history. This problem doesnít belong to a particular person or race. Once the community recognizes this and bands together, the recovering begins and the ghosts vanish.

Each of the characters are marked by separate choices. Sethe made a decision for her children (or was it selfish motivation disguised as martyrdom?) Paul D., her lover (played by Danny Glover) isnít hardy enough to ward off the ghost (who seduces him as cunningly as she consumes Sethe, her "only love"). Even Denver, her "sister" canít reconcile with the spirit after itís been brought to life. Beloved grows physically stronger, while the household members are depleted. Sheís a walking metamorphosis (as hinted by the butterflies that circle like winged barrettes). Her sole intention is a flowerís name: forget me not.

Performances fare exceptionally well (including a minor role by Beah Richards as Baby Suggs, the imminent wilderness preacher). Thandie Newton embodies Belovedís rage with a stunning savagery that is all the more chilling for being contained within long-boned, aristocratic beauty. Itís a shame that Demme distorts the film through melodramatic tampering, from Rachel Portmanís nudging score (constantly shrieking emotional semaphores) to Tak Fujimotoís neurotic camera movement and odd, ceiling-level angles. Even the sound design blares an insect dirge that never ceases. A much subtler approach wouldíve been welcome. Does Demme believe his audience wonít appreciate the shrewd details of Morrisonís elegant prose without slam-bang, Exorcist-style tantrums? When he does include them (like the scene where Sethe loses control over her bladder after spotting Beloved) they occur so briefly, and with such literal translation, the original context (a birth metaphor, her water breaking) is lost.

Most novels do not belong on the big screen, regardless of (or in Belovedís case, because of) how faithfully theyíre adapted. Too often, the spine of the story is mechanically stuffed into a classical Hollywood genre. Film, as an art form, has a much younger history than literature. It will take time before it welcomes the stylistic changes that match literary techniques. In books, the reader becomes co-creator with the author, merging an exclusive landscape of memory and imagination that wonít be seen by another pair of eyes. Like ghosts, they sometimes take up a mind of their own, and are just as easy to touch.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]


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