Cinema: Home not-so-Sweet Home

Beloved (15) Director: Jonathan Demme Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton 171 mins
Sethe's mother-in-law is dead and her two sons ran away from her long ago. For years she and her daughter Denver have been the only living souls in the clapped-out clapboard house. There is a dead soul at home though, an angry, vicious poltergeist which cruelly and relentlessly terrorises these lonely, silent women. A body lies in a snowy graveyard nearby, the headstone bearing just one word: Beloved.

One day something quite unheard of happens. A man, instead of hurrying by the house as all the locals do, turns and walks right in. Sethe recognises him immediately, even though they haven't met for nearly two decades. He is Paul D, who grew up on the same brutal slave plantation as Sethe, called Sweet Home. She tells him the terrible story of how she escaped, he tells her how he did, and he moves in with her, beginning a passionate love affair. He is troubled by the ghost in the house, but Sethe explains that the spirit is not evil, just sad.

Soon another visitor comes to the house, dressed elaborately in weeds of jet. She is young, beautiful and has skin of luminous smoothness, yet can barely walk or speak or eat. She appears to have the spatial awareness, emotional age and physical prowess of a two-year-old. This young woman is welcomed into Sethe's home and manages to splutter out her name, letter by letter. She is called B-E-L-O-V-E-D.

And so the scene is set. Suddenly we understand more than the protagonists of this drama about the identity of the spirit at work in the house. What we have yet to learn is Sethe's story, the violent history that moves the spirit that torments her.

An exploration of the brutal psychological effects of slavery, Beloved is set in rural Ohio in 1865, in the early years after abolition. The story is interesting because it doesn't shrink from portraying flawed individuals - though of course the extenuating circumstances for the imperfections of the characters are overwhelming. But while this narrative - the part of the film which deals with the land of the living - is told in lurid flashback, and takes on a feeling of fantasy, even of Gothic horror, Beloved's story, despite its location in the spirit world, is explored mundanely and matter-of-factly.

When the two tales meet, and we finally see the terrible act that has earned for Sethe the wrath of Beloved, it comes as a shock but not as a surprise. And while this central dilemma has something of the cerebral horror of William Styron's Sophie's Choice, one remains unsure as to whether Sethe's choice could, in any nightmare world, have been the right one. Certainly, her contemporaries in her own community are united in the belief that it was not. Sethe, however, remains unrepentant. Does the cruelty of slavery excuse any other cruelty?

Beloved is a film project that arrives on our screens larded with talent and freighted with righteousness. Based on the best-selling novel by the African-American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, it is directed by the Academy Award-winning Jonathan Demme and produced by the redoubtable Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey also stars as Sethe, while Danny Glover is Paul B, and Thandi Newton plays Beloved. All of the acting is way more than competent, and Newton is terrific as the vengeful baby-woman.

The actors all feel a moral commitment to the project, and rise to the occasion. For Winfrey, and indeed for everyone involved in the making of the film, it is considered to be important, cathartic, educational and enlightening.

In some respects it is all of these things, though film-goers are just as likely to perceive it as over-long and overwrought. When the film had finally ended - it's three hours long - I felt immense relief. It wasn't so much that Beloved packed an emotional impact, it was more that the movie was hysterical. And hysteria is the last thing one needs when attempting to suspend disbelief in a film whose premiss is that its protagonists don't notice that a dangerous incubus has come to life and moved in.

I was gripped by Toni Morrison's original novel Beloved because in a written narrative one can choose how much the supernatural aspects of the story can be taken literally and how much they are metaphorical, how much the demon Beloved is the creature of brutalised and outcast minds and how much a factual presence. There is room for the sceptical reader to adjust her mind as the narrative moves along. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the narrative is literal and that Toni Morrison is a strong believer in ghosts and spirits. But this is something that is required of the viewer right at the start of the film.

That this is something of a challenge is partly the fault of the script, which is too reverential in its interpretation of the book. But the main trouble lies with Jonathan Demme's direction. None of the psychological tension Demme has brought to such films as The Silence of the Lambs is present. Either you entirely accept that ghosts can achieve living, breathing, defecating, love-making, sweating, eating, trouble-making human forms, or you leave the cinema. This makes for a Roots-meets- The X-Files viewing experience which helps neither aspect of the drama.

Yet despite all this, Beloved can't be written off as a failure. Having seen Oprah do Alice Walker in Spielberg's The Color Purple and Toni Morrison in Demme's Beloved, there's still more than idle speculation in my mind as to whether she'll go for the big three, the triumvirate of great contemporary African-American female writers, and do Maya Angelou in Spike Lee's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as well. Maybe Lee would be able to stand up to her. The trouble with this movie, I'd guess, is that Jonathan Demme found himself quite unable to challenge Winfrey's vision of how this story should be told. And who can blame him for that?

Gilbert Adair returns next week