I have not read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” As such, I felt like an outsider at this movie. I kept getting the sense that the images and events on screen were supposed to supplement my memory of the book.
But without that memory, this movie was frustrating, dull and confusing.
The film opens in 1865. A ghost is in the process of violently maiming a dog, ruining a cake, and sending two boys out into the cold.
Now it is 1873. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) is at home with her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) when her old friend Paul D (Danny Glover) shows up from out of the past. Sethe warmly invites him inside, where he “meets” the ghost.
After this, the ghost disappears. It was in the first two sequences, and now, it is gone. Nobody mentions it; it is as though everyone has forgotten that there was ever a ghost in the first place.
If you’ve read the book, this will be perfectly clear. For the rest of us, we are left to wonder what happened to the ghost, and why nobody on screen finds this disappearance worth mentioning. By the end of the movie, you will find out what became of the ghost even though the movie never tells you directly.
Paul stays with Sethe long enough that the two start thinking about settling down. After an outing, they return home to find a disheveled girl (Thandie Newton), unconscious on their doorstep. They revive this mysterious child who calls herself “Beloved.”
Sethe has a natural affinity for Beloved and Paul becomes jealous. Beloved, who seems retarded, is equally jealous of Paul. Eventually Beloved makes sexual advances toward Paul, who reluctantly gives in.
Readers of the book will know what is really happening, where Beloved’s “retardation” comes from, and why she behaves the way she does towards Paul. If you haven’t read the book, you will never understand. (Someone who has read the book explained it to me, and there is no evidence of Beloved’s “book” motives in the movie.)
The movie slows down for several flashbacks that reveal Sethe’s harrowing past as a slave. Here is where her life and her character are supposed to take shape and depth.
Again, if you have read the book, these flashbacks will probably remind you of those scenes from Morrison’s novel. For the rest of us, it’s a long, tedious wait for the relevance of her haunted past to take shape and for the plot to continue.
At the movie’s climax, Sethe’s past and Beloved’s identity come together. But instead of letting these revelations sink in, the film goes off in new, tangential directions, ultimately shifting the focus from Sethe to her daughter Denver. The story is over but the movie rambles on.
I’m not really sure I could say for certain what was in this film. If pressed, I could probably come up with a linear story from the jumble of events and from talking to someone who had read the book. I might even be able to dig up some of the themes that Morrison and the screenwriters intended. But I wouldn’t know whether I was right or not without reading the original novel.
In other words, this movie doesn’t stand on its own, as a separate work. I found that to be maddening and frustrating. I can’t even comment on the cinematography or acting, traits which other critics have praised, because I have no idea what purpose they might have served, or what style they might have enhanced.
Part of me wants to see the film again to find out what I missed the first time; perhaps it would make more sense on a second viewing. But for me, it’s not worth another 172 minutes to find out. Beloved was the worst experience I’ve had at a movie in quite a long time.