Film: Tasteful, all too tasteful

Have you noticed how long movies are these days? One of the more alarming repercussions of James Cameron's Titanic is the way the film's success has sanctioned not just the runaway budget but the runaway length. It now seems that three hours is perfectly acceptable as a running time. While this might be justified in the case of a Malick or a Spielberg, it feels like bad news as a trend: why on earth was Meet Joe Black allowed to snail past the three-hour mark?

Time can, of course, play tricks in the dark. It's not how long a movie lasts, but how long it seems. I recently sat down to watch a movie at 10.30 in the morning. Two hours later I sneaked a look at my watch: it was 10.45. Jonathan Demme's Beloved isn't in that category, but it does last close to three hours, and once it's over you can't quite understand why it should have taken so long. It isn't exactly boring, but it lacks any of the qualities that could sustain its inordinate length: narrative drive, passionate engagement, thematic complexity. And this is a film about black slavery!

That it fails to work is certainly no fault of the source material. Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was remarkable both for its haunting, mythic resonance and its lyrical, metalled prose. Oprah Winfrey, who stars in the film, optioned the rights to the book when it was published in 1987, and the potency of the material is there for all to see. It's a black American version of Medea set against the tumultuous backdrop of slavery, spooked with guilt and a grippingly morbid intensity. Morrison's story operated on a dual time-scheme, either side of the Civil War: in 1873, Sethe (Winfrey) is a one-time slave and mother of three scraping by in rural Ohio, where she fled 18 years previously from the Sweet Home farm in Kentucky. Memories of that place ("It wasn't sweet, and it sure wasn't home") are painfully reawakened by the reappearance of Paul D (Danny Glover), a fellow fugitive who shows up after years of wandering.

Sethe is happy enough to see him, but what Paul D finds on entering her house isn't anything he's prepared for. The walls glow orange, the floorboards shake, the windows rattle: it's the ghost of Sethe's infant daughter, murdered 18 years ago and still playing havoc with the family furniture. Only Sethe and her other daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), have remained in the house. Paul D refuses to be cowed by the outraged revenant, and after weathering crockery-smashing and table-turning, drives the ghost away. I guess this is intended to be high drama. All it reminded me of was Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains confessing a new-found love before a portrait of his dead wife and asking for a sign if she disapproves. (The portrait starts spinning, lightning flashes, etc.)

With the house becalmed, a romance springs up between Sethe and Paul D, who turn out to have matching scars on their backs from the white man's whip. In the novel one senses the urgency of their connection; a communion of two grateful survivors with stories to tell one another. It's here that we expect the film-makers to shift back to the time of Sweet Home in order to detail the misery and suffering of the slave past: this, we're sure, will be the heart of the movie.

Instead, past and present have been turned back to front: Sethe's escape from Kentucky and the birth of her daughter on the banks of the Ohio are condensed into amber-lit flashbacks, expertly done and finely played by Lisa Gay Hamilton as the young Sethe, yet much too fleeting for their significance to be felt. Jonathan Demme concentrates instead on the present - the Winfrey-led sections - in which a beautiful young woman (Thandie Newton) dressed in black shows up at Sethe's home, drooling and talking in a voice that sounds like a demonic frog. This is Beloved, the ghost of the murdered daughter in human shape, and armed to the teeth with vengeful schemes.

It is also, I'm afraid, an absurd misjudgement. Newton, memorable in John Duigan's lovely coming-of-age movie Flirting, is here allowed full rein to make a fool of herself, wobbling her head, twisting her mouth and slowing her voice to Forrest Gump pace. Her introduction also has the effect of slowing the picture. Demme, who possibly played second fiddle to fellow producer Winfrey, seems to be tiptoeing round the scenery - a strange turnaround from the man who brought us The Silence of the Lambs. Shots of butterflies and birds proliferate throughout; like last week's The Thin Red Line, much is made of the enigmatic beauty of nature. I kept waiting for the book's most horrifying scene - one which has stayed with me in the 10 years since I read it involving a chain gang standing in a trench while their white owners sexually abuse them. And, wouldn't you know, the film completely overlooks it. (It's on pages 107-108 of the Picador paperback, in case you're interested).

Perhaps people will find a meaning or even an uplift in Beloved which I missed, though I can't see how it would enthrall anyone. It's somehow too strait-laced, too draggy, too solemn in its reverence to make the pulse race. The film's preferred method of signalling high emotion is to have a massed choir warbling out an ethereal hymn. While Winfrey and Glover haven't disgraced themselves in the central roles, there's no sense of a performance being wrenched out of them: they look oddly serene for former slaves. Aside from a handful of brief flashbacks, nothing much ruffles the stately progress of an adaptation which misguidedly glosses terror with tastefulness.