This layered film, a labor of love from director Jonathan Demme and star Oprah Winfrey, covers a lot of turf in its nearly three-hour running time. Part slavery fable, part mother-daughter tale, part ghost story, Beloved demands an audience's full attention from its dramatic, slightly bewildering opening, when a family dog comes down on the wrong side of some angry, unseen force. But Demme and his talented cast provide an unforgettable payoff for those who surrender.
The film traces the life of Sethe (played in her middle years by Winfrey), a former slave who has rebuilt what seems to be a peaceful, productive life in Ohio. Yet through chilling, sparing use of flashback, Demme slowly unveils, as does the Toni Morrison masterpiece on which the film is based, the horrors of Sethe's former life, and the terrible event that led to the haunting of Sethe's home.
While the horrors of slavery and the bloody event in Sethe's family leave undeniable impressions, the film's brilliance is also evidenced in smaller, equally satisfying ways. Rachel Portman's spiritual-influenced score is as uplifting as it is haunting, and the glimpses of the post-slavery African American world--as with a simple family outing to a local carnival, or a ladies' sewing-and-gospel circle--make this a treat for the intellect as well as the heart. The members of the cast, especially Kimberly Elise as Sethe's struggling daughter and Thandie Newton as the mysterious title character, are supremely affecting. --Anne Hurley