'Beloved' fails to live up to novel expectations

The saying goes that you can't judge a book by its cover.  Sometimes,
though, you can judge a movie by its beginning.  The opening scene of 
Beloved, Oprah Winfrey's long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed The 
Color Purple, sets the tone for the harrowing, nearly three hours of 
footage to follow: a dog is being brutally thrown into walls by unseen 
hands, then thrown to the floor, where it twitches in pain, one eye 
dangling loose from its socket.  Beloved treats its audience much like 
that dog.  Random acts of violence, without setting or explanation, 
turn what could have been a powerful and thought-provoking movie into 
a desensitizing haze of bloody images.

	Director Jonathan Demme is best known for Silence of the Lambs, 
the grisly Jodie Foster thriller that swept the 1991 Oscars, and like
that movie, Beloved is an unflinching look at the atrocities 
desperate people commit upon one another. Demme (and Toni Morrison, 
author of the book of the same name and close friend of Oprah herself) 
are here specifically interested in the life-shattering results of 
slavery in the 1850's and 60's.  Winfrey plays Sethe, an escaped slave 
who lives in the free state of Ohio in near-seclusion with her two 
daughters - one which happens to be the ghost of the toddler Sethe 
murdered nearly twenty years earlier.  

	Obviously, then, this is not a movie for the squeamish - the 
assault on the dog is followed in rapid order by a rape scene (shot 
from the point of view of the pregnant victim), and halfway through 
the movie comes probably the most unsettling depiction of matricide 
ever shown in American theaters.  Unlike The Color Purple, however, 
which dealt with similar themes of pain, loss, and redemption, Beloved 
makes no effort to explain itself to its audience - even let it 
experience emotional connections between the characters.  
	Early scenes between Sethe and her lover Paul D (Danny Glover), 
for example, which could have established a necessary intimacy between 
the two, are instead inexplicably shot with each character speaking 
directly to the audience.  Demme seems to have forgotten that we must 
feel for his characters before we can feel their loss; otherwise, the 
gruesome scenes that follow seem like outtakes from a bad horror film 
(Urban Legend, anyone?) and the audience simply does not know how to 
respond.  Many people in my screening were whispering in bewilderment 
or outright laughing at scenes Demme obviously meant to be heart-
	Demme has further saddled his movie with one of the most 
unbelievable characters found in a drama in a good long while.  The 
title character of Beloved, played with scene-chewing abandon by 
Thandie Newton, has reincarnated the dead child's soul into a body 
the age Beloved would be had she lived.  Beloved, who first appears 
on-screen in full mourning and (again, inexplicably) covered in 
bugs, must learn all the things she was denied in life, like how to 
walk, how to eat with her mouth closed, and - eventually - how to 
sleep with and get pregnant by her mother's lover.  Newton's idea of, 
excuse the pun, fleshing out her character involves a lot of drooling, 
spastic facial movements, and compulsively attacking people and taking 
off her clothes.  Jerry Springer would love Beloved.  

	This isn't to say that everything in Beloved is wretched.  
Oprah gives a strong, remarkably restrained performance as Sethe; 
I wish she would venture away from her talk show and into dramatic 
roles more often.  And the relatively unknown Kimberly Elise, playing 
her (living) daughter Denver, is genuinely astonishing.  At the 
beginning of the movie, Denver seems like a sullen, high-strung brat - 
she pitches a tremendous fit when Sethe brings Paul D back to their 
house, and Sethe has to eventually physically remove her from the room.  
But Denver is an intelligent, self-aware woman who, unlike any other 
character in the movie, actually learns from her mistakes and the 
situations she finds herself in.  Both character and actress deserved 
a better movie than this.

	Beloved had all the right elements going for it: Oscar-winning 
director, Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, and the Queen of All Media 
to boot, and its very incomprehensibility and condescending attitude 
will probably snag a few Oscar nominations.  But with this much talent 
at work, we should have seen a better, more honest, and ultimately a 
more human movie than Beloved turns out to be.

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