- Oprah Winfrey as Sethe
- Danny Glover as Paul D
- Thandie Newton as Beloved
- Kimberly Elise as Denver
- Beah Richards as Baby Suggs
The brutal and shameful legacy of slavery is laid bare in Beloved while also featuring a heavy supernatural theme throughout. Though while it’s an undoubtedly powerful film benefiting from some excellent acting, the sum of its part don’t quite add up to a whole which is rather unfortunate. Still it has its moments of raw and haunting power about how the impact of such events scars someone and refuse to leave.
Sethe is a former slave who now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio in the years following the Civil War. Her daughter Denver lives with her in her house(handed down by Sethe’s deceased mother-in-law and wise preacher Baby Suggs), but her other children, two sons, have run away because of a strange phenomena within their house. The house appears to be possessed by an angry spirit that makes life unbearable by employing poltergeist levels of anguish and destruction; Sethe believes the ghost is of her oldest daughter who died years before. For Denver, living in a haunted place is proving too much and as she’s so shut off from everything else due to shyness, finds life particularly tough. Some of the gloom for mother and daughter is temporarily alleviated by the arrival of an old friend Paul D, who also endured years of suffering at the same plantation as Sethe. The warm Paul moves in and has always loved Sethe, and while at first she doesn’t want to get too close, she tentatively reciprocates his feelings and for once everything seems to be getting a little better. Yet while it seems that Paul has banished the ghost, it takes the form of something else and returns. It embodies the firm of a teenage girl known only as Beloved, who emerges from the swamps covered in insects and makes her way to Sethe’s home. Beloved can barely speak or communicate and seems to be something of a feral child stuck in a teenage body. Sethe takes a liking to Beloved and begins to help her as well as Denver who teaches the girl to articulate words. Yet Beloved is a lot more than meets the eye and her haunting presence soon weighs heavy on the family that where just finding harmony. Beloved seems to be innocent, but her existence starts to unsettle Denver, Paul and most importantly Sethe as she appears to have a deep connection with Sethe’s buried past that causes a haunting spectre to hover over her. Sethe has never forgotten the abhorrent acts that she suffered while being a slave and one particularly act of desperation she committed after escaping from torture. And with Beloved now in residence at her house, Sethe is forced to confront the literal and mental ghosts of her past that she fought so long to suppress.
From doing my research, I see that Oprah Winfrey was instrumental in wanting to get the book from which the film is based brought to the big screen. I can understand why she would want to bring the story to the screen as it is undeniably powerful and disturbing stuff. It’s a shame then that Beloved couldn’t quite come together as successfully as she’d hoped. Still even though it’s a flawed film, Jonathan Demme is a very talented director in my book and he shows off considerable skill in many areas of Beloved. His command of the camera is impressive, particularly in an array of close-ups that have the actors almost breaking the fourth wall and beckoning to us. He also doesn’t sanitize any of the horror of slavery and doesn’t hold back on showing how shameful and disgusting it was. I commend Demme for this as he is making us as the viewers confront the disturbing and inhumane past, in much the same way as the characters do. His hold over pacing however is far from ideal and while I can get the long running time it does feel at times excessive and like Demme is trying to cram so much in to the story. At least his direction has some good qualities to it, despite numerous flaws located within Beloved. As a film, Beloved does veer all over the place at a lot of occasions and can be deeply confusing as to what it’s aiming for. At least there is a haunting cinematography and camera style that taps into the harsh truths about slavery, the chilling ghost of the past and the desperate need to escape. Flashbacks are bathed in red and applied with grainy abrasions to a very good effect, heightened by canted camera angles. A gospel influenced score from Rachel Portman pierces to the heart of emotions on display and contributes soulfulness to the film.
In the lead of Sethe, Oprah Winfrey contributes a subtle performance of stoic suffering and maternal love. I must say I mainly think of Winfrey as the host of her own TV show and her being bubbly, but here she exudes a profound depth and sadness to the part of Sethe, who is haunted quite literally by her past. Winfrey’s eye soulfully reveal her pain, even when Sethe tries to remain strong in the face of confronting the horrors of her life as a slave. Danny Glover also impresses in the film; playing Paul D as a seemingly joyful man, who is not oblivious to what he has been through but refusing to be beat down by it. As the eponymous character who is an unusual puzzle, the talented Thandie Newton turns in a feral performance of physical power that prompts moments of shock, sympathy and even revulsion. The performance does make Newton go through some extreme things and makes her overact through various stretches, but it suits the character very well and in Newton’s hands becomes something different and strange. The person who really caught my eye and delivered for me the standout performance was the subtle and slowly growing Kimberly Elise. Kimberly Elise marvellously displays Denver’s insecurities and fears(first of going outside and later of Beloved who takes over the house) and how she evolves from a shut in into an independent woman when it is required and she must become stronger to prosper. Her character of Denver is by the far the one who changes the most in the story and Kimberly Elise shines in the part. In the small but extremely memorable role of Baby Suggs seen in flashback, Beah Richards combines passion with steel as the preacher who still sees the good in life despite all of the horrors that it has inflicted on her over the years.
So while showing the utter horror of slavery and the long-lasting impact of it, Beloved is sadly a film that is made up of moments rather a cohesive experience which is rather unfortunate it must be said. It has some very committed acting and unusual visuals, but the film just doesn’t come together well enough to make an indelible imprint on the mind. It’s a film that has good intentions but is just never realized enough on the screen.