Beloved

As with the seemingly dissimilar Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Beloved has an excellent director placed in charge of filming an unfilmable book. Unfortunately, also like Fear And Loathing, Beloved disappoints outside of some isolated sequences of tremendous power and a few great performances. In this case, Jonathan Demme, in his first fictional film since Philadelphia, takes on Toni Morrison's 1987 masterpiece, the story of an escaped slave (Oprah Winfrey) who finds herself literally haunted by the past in post-Civil War Cincinnati. In the house she shares with her daughter (Kimberly Elise), Winfrey has become accustomed to the ghostly presence of a daughter who died as an infant, a presence that seems to disappear upon the arrival of Danny Glover, a friend from Winfrey's past as a slave with whom she begins a spirited affair. But another arrival shortly follows Glover's, that of the title character (Thandie Newton), a mysterious, infantile teen who takes up residence with Winfrey's family and begins to upset their hard-won and fleeting happiness. There are a number of problems with Demme's film, and Newton's character is not the least of them. The character of Beloved works far better on the page than in the flesh. It's easy to appreciate Newton's efforts, but the image of a grown woman behaving like a needy infant and talking in a voice out of The Exorcist greatly diminishes the power of Morrison's creation. The film deserves credit for remaining faithful to the novel, but this often comes at the price of dialogue-driven scenes that, however well-acted, bring things to a halt. Viewers unfamiliar with the novel will likely be put off, at least for a while, by other aspects of Demme's adaptation; Morrison's sometimes fractured prose has been translated into its cinematic equivalent, and major characters in the book arrive with little explanation. Good acting from Glover, Winfrey, and especially Elise helps compensate for those shortcomings, and when Demme allows himself to be cinematic, particularly in the flashback sequences, Beloved has an almost gut-wrenching quality to it. But the same can't be said for the movie overall—it's a noble, ambitious failure, but a failure nonetheless.

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