Slave-era Ohio. A middle-age woman welcomes an old friend into her home (and her bed), but the visitor is confronted by a spectre from his hostess' past.
Toni Morrison's troubling (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel Beloved was never going to be an easy one to translate to the screen. Still, on paper Jonathan Demme looked like a director with the ideal pedigree, having captured so well the arcing emotions in Philadelphia and sharply paced the drama of The Silence Of The Lambs.
Sethe (Winfrey) is an escapee slave, who has set up a new life for herself and daughter Denver (Elise) in rural Ohio in 1873. An old friend (and randy suitor, it transpires) Paul D. (Glover) becomes a permanent fixture around the house and in Sethe's bed, upsetting the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. But this is as nothing compared to the emotional upheavals that occur following the appearance of the ethereal and witch-like Beloved (Newton) - who may or may not be a manifest spirit of a tragic past. And on the story front, that's about it really. For nearly three hours.
What transpires is an onerously overwrought and overlong emotional opus. Newton, who had seemed to be ripening into one of the finest actressess of her generation goes berserk here, jerking and shaking her way through a couple of hours of torturous physical theatre, suffering under the misapprehension that this is a daring course. "I want you to touch me on the inside, pa," she goads Paul D. at one point, as he sleeps alone in the outhouse. It should be moving or tragic but as the outhouse becomes bathed in symbolic red light as they copulate, it ends up weirdly laughable, indicative of Demme's inability to marry the otherworldly to the dramatic. Elsewhere Winfrey (who also produced) fares better as the stubborn but noble Sethe, while Elise puts in a tight turn as the daughter nervously discovering her new role as surrogate mother.
Beloved is a harrowing if often beautiful piece. It intends to affect and unnerve and it almost does, but the emotional response seems false, evoked through sentimental tricks and overplayed emotions.