The first scenes of the Jonathan Demme-directed Beloved are viscerally haunting and frightening in ways for which film is particularly suited. With chilling images and extraordinary sound design, Demme creates an instantly tangible world of ghostly dread. Beloved is a ghost story, one grounded in the haunts flowing from a slavery-imprinted existence. And, with a spare usage of horrifically searing images, Demme shows us the same thing Spielberg showed us with Saving Private Ryan (and to a lesser degree, Amistad), that the physical horror resulting from wars or evil institutions like slavery can be conveyed more vividly and tangibly with pictures and sounds than they can with words. The more difficult area for pictures to reach, the area of Toni Morrison's 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that Demme can never quite conjure up, are the mental horrors, which live in the interior landscape covered by Morrison's beloved story, the landscape that should make Beloved, the film, more powerful than it is.
Oprah Winfrey, who used her considerable influence to bring this project to the screen, also tackles the film's central role, that of the maternally strong-willed Sethe, an ex-slave living in emancipated isolation with her living daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), and the ghost of her other, long-dead daughter, Beloved. For Sethe, this ghost, which comes in the form of strong wind gusts and a deep red glow, is just another household presence. The more bothersome presence is Sethe's past, which begins to intrude upon the house in the form of casually arriving guests. The first arrival is Paul D (Danny Glover), a fellow ex-slave who lived with Sethe at Sweet Home, the plantation from which Sethe escaped with her children but without her loving husband. Their shared past soon blossoms into a mutually fulfilling love, and along with Denver, they become a quickly-formed nuclear family. But when a second arrival mysteriously ambles out of the backyard stream in a flowing black dress, the family gets a new, troublesome addition. She is Sethe's long-dead daughter Beloved (Thandie Newton), now a fully grown teenager. Inhabiting a near-lifeless body and mouthing sounds as if she were learning to speak for the first time, Beloved is not recognizable to Sethe, but Paul D and Denver each notice her ethereal aura. As Beloved works her way into Sethe's family, the past that has come to define all of them is brought back to life, a past inhabited by countless acts of unspeakable brutality and bloodmarked by one single action of ghastly desperation.
Demme and his longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto stage these flashbacks with a hypnotically poetic passion, contrasting the desaturated color scheme of the film's present with a high-contrast, sepia-toned graininess for the vividly intense past. Just as vividly intense is Thandie Newton, who gives a ferocious performance of remarkable, ostentatious physicality as the otherworldly Beloved. She's such an overwhelming presence in the film that it's amazing Winfrey makes a mark at all, but she bravely strips away all trappings of physical appeal to play Sethe. Winfrey disappears into the role, a considerable feat considering the enduring strength of her public persona. She imbues Sethe with an earthy dignity and humility, but she isn't given the opportunity to imbue the film with any fine-pointed emotional nuance. Glover, Elise, Lisa Gay Hamilton as a younger Sethe and Beah Richards as Baby Suggs, Sethe's sermonizing mother-in-law, give strong, reliable performances as well, but as Sethe's past closes in tighter, as the emotional urgency tightens around the characters, Demme can't summon up the acting nuance to match that urgency, and the air starts to leak out from the film.
He gets little help from the screenplay. A large part of the problem is with Beloved the character, so fiercely embodied by Newton but a frustrating enigma to the film, which never seems to know what to make of her, what her purpose is, or even exactly what she is. The film goes to great lengths to literalize her presence-she's no metaphorical figment of a character's imagination. She is a walking, talking ghost, seeable to every other character. What does she want, or does she have any real self-awareness at all? We never know, and without these questions answered, or even just addressed, the character becomes an arbitrary dramatic construction, a clunky metaphor plopped into the story to jump-start Sethe's pain. As the screenplay gets its focus confused near the end of the film's nearly three-hour length, unable to decide if the story is about Denver, who slowly ventures out from her life of seclusion, or Sethe and her relationship to Beloved and the torrid past they've shared, and without the dramatic resources to be about both, the picture just about stalls dead.
And overshadowing all of these specific screenplay problems is the inability of Demme to find a cinematic language that conveys the aching pain of Morrison's characters. Demme has more than proven his talent with actors, as well as his knack with quirky characters and colorful cultural portraits (Melvin and Howard, Married to the Mob), and with stories of crackling contemporary immediacy (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia). He's in new waters here, with a story of the soul-crushing legacy of slavery, a period piece that's deliberate and elegiac and spiritually layered. You can feel him wanting to give the material a boost, to make it sing and move in ways the story resists. His signature technique of having his characters speak to each other directly into the camera frequently intensifies the immediacy of his films, but it just doesn't work here. His prodigious talent for creating stories of comic or dramatic urgency doesn't mesh with this more spiritual, metaphysical territory, and the contemporaneous post-slavery material lies static as a result-only the slavery-marked flashbacks hold any real power. With his considerable directorial strength, he can't manage to externalize a story that's located so deeply in the interior realms of guilt and anguish and spiritual death, nor can he overcome a screenplay, the end result of numerous drafts from three different writers, that ultimately turns out to be flatfooted. If Beloved, for all its individual moments of power and grace, does not ultimately add up to much, it's because Demme and the screenwriters can never find the means to get underneath the skin of the story's dread. They can't do what Morrison's words can, they can't break the surface of the page.