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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?