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Night of the Baby

[whitespace] Beloved
Troubled Times: Kimberly Elise and Oprah Winfrey confront the spirits of the past in 'Beloved.'

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' is faithful to a fault

By Richard von Busack

SETHE, HEROINE of Toni Morrison's 1987 celebrated ghost story, runs one of the most terrible obstacle courses a novelist ever built for a fictional character. She endures slavery, the lynching of her mother, the loss of her children, crypto-sexual humiliation, abandonment by her husband, flogging, childbirth in a leaky open boat--and a worse thing still.

This one worse thing is constructed as the ultimate surprise in Jonathan Demme's three-hour-long film adaptation of Beloved. Certainly all of Sethe's agonies are historical fact, but is it historical fact that they all could have happened to one woman? The answer may be that Morrison intended Beloved as a symbolic book, that Sethe's agonies represent the collective experience of the enslaved. (Morrison dedicated Beloved collectively to "Sixty million and more.")

Beloved is set in Ohio in the years right after the Civil War. Sethe has a house in the countryside, a long walk from Cincinnati, where she works as a cook. She and her introverted daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), live alone. Well, not quite alone. The plantation memories Sethe has tried to suppress are still with her in the form of a ghost that haunts her house, wrecking her possessions and poisoning her life--and nearly killing her, after nothing else could.

This Ghost of Slavery is the restless, raging spirit of Sethe's dead baby, "full of a baby's venom," as Morrison writes. One afternoon, Paul D (Danny Glover), an old friend from the plantation she escaped from, arrives and moves in. Sethe and Paul become lovers; this relationship brings her some solace, at the price of even more unwanted recollections of her past.

For a time, the house is peaceful. Then, perhaps because Denver wishes herself a sister, the ghost materializes in adult form, rising out of the river, crawling with lady beetles and circled by sulfur-colored butterflies. The ghost calls itself Beloved.

Like a baby, Beloved (Thandie Newton) is greedy for affection, for attention, for food. She throws violent tantrums when she can't have her way. She drives Paul D out, after first pouncing on him like a succubus; finally, she tries to satisfy her bottomless hunger by turning on Sethe.

TO TACKLE this symbolist tale, Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) uses some of the vernacular of horror movies, including crawling bugs and disorienting camera angles. When Beloved first spells out her name, her words come out in an obscene rasp, heavy with electronically enhanced baritone like the voice of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist. Supernatural magenta lights, like the floodlights in Mario Bava's horror films, illuminate the shed where Beloved's baby self died.

The shock flashbacks to scenes of torture and execution would be right at home in a Hammer film. Beloved is a demon, up to the usual demonic tricks. The first shot in the movie is of Sethe's dog, Here Boy, slammed against a wall by the poltergeist, knocked hard enough to avulse its eyeball.

Starting a movie with the mistreatment of a dog is a way of throwing down the gauntlet to viewers, asking them if they're as tough as Sethe is. (By the way, have you noticed that Mormon missionaries have a new line they use when they corner you: "Can I challenge you to read the Book of Mormon?" The hook in the Mormon pitch, as in Beloved, is that no one with grit can refuse a challenge.)

The opening is disturbing, but Here Boy's injuries are in the book, and there's an argument to be made that Morrison's novel should be filmed as straight-out horror. Demme, working from a script with three credited writers (Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks), only did the job halfway.

A model for a film of Beloved is Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955), with its matter-of-fact understanding of supernatural evil and its stylized, artificial-looking countryside. Unfortunately, Demme's Beloved is more like the lyrical mid-'80s farm movies Witness and The River. The rural rhapsodies Morrison is heir to (just like any other child of the 1960s) chase away the mood of doom and oppression with harvest scenes and summer fun.

A straightforward horror film might answer the question "Why don't Sethe and Denver escape the hell house?" ("Why bother?" Morrison answers the question, in a passage from the novel that doesn't have an equivalent in the movie. "Not a house in the country ain't packed to the rafters with some negro's grief.")

If every black household were a haunted house--as might be the case in a horror movie, but isn't the case in Beloved--it might make sense that no one notices Sethe's troubles, that no one thinks to go fetch an exorcist, that no one tips her off on how to appease an angry ghost.

If Beloved had been a straight horror story, the questions of logic that the film raises might not be so obvious. It certainly wouldn't take the cavalry (actually a group of 30 Baptist church ladies) almost three hours to arrive.

OF THOSE THREE HOURS, Winfrey is on screen perhaps two. She co-produced Beloved, having bought the screen rights years ago. She was the main engine for having Beloved made, and she's a strong promoter--in her role as the nation's reigning book critic--of Morrison. But Winfrey has overdone it by casting herself in the lead role. Watching Oprah play Sethe in the film version of Beloved is like watching Larry King play Hamlet.

"Queenly and quiet" is the way Sethe is described by Denver in the novel, and a stiff queenly job of acting Winfrey's Sethe is. Every sentence is measured and every pose selected in advance, as she stands and delivers a line.

Winfrey's Sethe is a great lady actress condescending to knead dough and make biscuits for the camera. (It's an MGM performance in a horror movie.) Two different characters call Sethe an animal, but Winfrey never shows us Sethe's almost animal stubbornness. Or maybe she didn't register it, figuring that just like being too rich or too thin, a woman can never be too stubborn. Winfrey's love scenes with Glover--as the almost supernaturally nice Paul D--are startlingly remote, as if the two performers were on different sets and cut together by editing.

Still, Glover's courtliness is a pleasure to watch, especially in the scene in which Paul D tries to charm Denver by borrowing her glass of lemonade, taking a swig and then daintily rubbing away the place where his lips met the glass with his handkerchief. When Glover drops out of the film for the last hour, Beloved loses its one actor who shows amusement without smothered hysteria.

There's one other noteworthy, though wildly uneven, performance. In the title role, Thandie Newton is sometimes spine-chilling. She has a psycho's foxy, smooth face, and she plays Beloved as a conniving little girl. There's a British expression about a cool customer: "Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth." The frozen butter may still be in Newton's mouth.

When Beloved gets her normal voice back, she delivers her dialogue with that slippery, strangely euphonious whine and lisp some of the deaf have when they speak. But Newton doesn't move well; her jerky motions--a demon toddler's first steps--recall Bride of Frankenstein. If the film hadn't evicted laughter from the theater, you'd be tempted to laugh.

DEMME HAS deleted Morrison's direst passage: Sethe prostituting herself to buy a tombstone for her dead baby (even Dickens never went that far). The rest of the film, however, is faithful to the novel's incidents--at great length, too.

Sethe's energy and savings are sucked out slowly to feed Beloved, and this process induces the same tedium that a movie about drug addicts does. When will she hit bottom?

While we're waiting, Demme explores the subplots. A good 20 minutes are devoted to showing us how Denver improves her station in the world. There are also some long flashbacks to the camp meetings of Grandma Baby Suggs (Beah Richards). Grandma Baby's goodness recalls the more ambiguous righteousness of Lillian Gish's character in The Night of the Hunter: a county grannie fearless enough to hold off Robert Mitchum's Preacher with a shotgun (but who knows that devil well enough to harmonize with him when he sings "Bringing in the Sheaves").

You've heard of daily affirmations? Grandma Baby offers hourly ones about learning to love and learning to heal, and the last affirmation comes right at the end of the film, exactly when you're desperate for some fresh air.

This reverent adaptation is a plain disaster, overproduced and overacted, a coffee-table book with snapshots of atrocities pasted in between the pages. You may never see a better example of what happens when a film is overfaithful to its source.

Beloved (R; 171 min.), directed by Jonathan Demmie, written by Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks, based on the novel by Toni Morrison, photographed by Tak Fujimoto and starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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