Rated R - Running time: 2:52 - Released 10/16/98

Ever since her Oscar-nominated debut in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), Oprah Winfrey has had more or less a charmed life. Weight problems aside, she has had much success with her Emmy-winning TV talk show and in her personal life, and now she is a successful producer as well. Her company, Harpo Films, makes its feature film debut with Jonathan Demme's Beloved, which was adapted for the screen by Akosua Busia based on the novel by Toni Morrison. And it's clear Winfrey & Co. are going for more Oscar nominations.

Like Purple, Beloved is an epic saga of poor blacks immediately following the Civil War, this time set near Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe (Winfrey) is a former slave with a teenaged daughter named Denver (Kimberly Elise). They live in a rundown house that is filled to the ceiling with very troubled spirits. Sethe and Denver have apparently learned to accept the frequent spectral visits, but when Sethe's old friend Paul D (Danny Glover) comes calling, he is a bit unnerved. But he decides to stay a while anyway.

Paul D and Sethe used to work together on a Kentucky plantation called Sweet Home, although, as they both agree, neither word fits their recollection of the place. After enduring some particularly cruel treatment, the pregnant Sethe (played in flashbacks by Lisa Gay Hamilton) had escaped and walked many miles, finally crossing the Ohio river. Paul D had gone another way, and at the film's start they haven't seen each other since that fateful night before her departure. Sethe and Denver are still living in Ohio, but gone are Sethe's other three children that she had sent before her. What happened to them is the basis of her tormented story.

When Sethe, Paul D and Denver return home from a carnival one afternoon, they find a mysterious young woman (Thandie Newton) in the yard. She has traveled a long way and is in terrible condition. When they ask her name, she replies by spelling it out in a hoarse voice: "B-E-L-O-V-E-D."

Seemingly retarded or suffering from some sort of brain damage, Beloved eats like a starved animal and is only able to communicate in the most rudimentary fashion. But she is convinced she is meant to be there, and so it looks like the family is now four. At first, Denver is thrilled, Paul D is suspicious, and Sethe is just plain confused. But what Beloved does to all their lives is like what Little Boy did to Hiroshima.

Though Beloved's messages are heavy-handed, it is a rich, visual film whose beauty does not sugar-coat the reality of the time. Director Demme, who has such masterpieces as Philadelphia and The Silence Of The Lambs under his belt, has filled it with high-impact flashbacks, using color filters and different film stocks to evoke various periods in the characters' lives. Busia's script is heavy and dark, and could have been trimmed a great deal (the big mystery of Beloved's identity is predictable to all but the other characters). Glover, Elise, and Hamilton are quite believable; Winfrey the weaker link. Zambian-born Newton is overdramatic, but it could be argued that there is a reason for that, discovered late in the film. Colleen Atwood's costume design is impeccable; she may well garner one of the inevitable nominations, despite the fact that contact lenses can clearly be seen on many actors' eyes during close-ups.

Will Beloved be nominated for Best Picture? Probably. Will it win? I doubt it. But you can't second-guess the power in those old haunts. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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