Normally, if you spot the word 'harrowing' attached to a movie, you think twice before devoting a fiver and a few hours of your life to watching it. Few multiplex-goers say to themselves: "You know, I really feel like being harrowed tonight..." Films don't have to be fun to be good, but you have to at least be in the right frame of mind to immerse yourself in the not particularly hilarious worlds of Schindler's List, Midnight Express and Jonathan Demme's latest, Beloved.
This unsettling drama's opening scene unflinchingly sets the tone: the audience is sucked into a supernatural whirlwind of flying cupboards, chairs and household pets, during which Sethe's faithful pooch is splatted against a wall, popping one of its eyeballs in the process. Then a stern, ever practical Sethe simply slaps the whimpering mutt down on her kitchen table and squidges the misplaced organ back into its socket. During the next two hours, grainy flashbacks spit out horrifying images of Sethe's torturous slave past, while Thandie Newton contorts her face and body, twitching, croaking and wailing her way around Sethe's home as the disturbingly deranged houseguest.
But Beloved is not relentlessly bleak; a strong sense of hope, friendship and battling-against-the-odds determination prevails. Newton is, at times, charming and amusing as the odd girl who inserts herself into Sethe's life, while Danny Glover lightens the mood with his persistent optimism. But it's Oprah Winfrey and Kimberly Elise who deliver the Oscar-potential performances. Winfrey spent years trying to bring Toni Morrison's novel to the big screen; every ounce of that effort has been poured into her portrayal of a woman tortured by slavers, tormented by ghosts and twisted by her past.
Elise, meanwhile, has made the most of Beloved's most difficult role: that of Denver, the only one of Sethe's children to stick by her mother during the hard times. While Newton grapples with the seemingly more difficult task of playing a warped child-woman, Elise has to portray a girl whose survival relies on her self-composure; who has to remain steady when all around her is spinning wildly out of control.
Despite a strong opening and cast, Beloved suffers from the latest Hollywood malaise: an unnecessarily long running-time. Clocking in at just under three hours, it wears you down; by the third act, emotional fatigue has set in to such a degree that what was harrowing in the first two acts has merely become boring or, even worse, unintentionally comic. For shame, because with a little more confident editing, Beloved could have been a consistently dark and powerful piece of film-making.
A shadowy, spooky and sometimes wincingly gruesome tale of ghosts, slavery and the will to hold on to freedom. But the dramatic tension and emotional impact are lost due to the running time, making Beloved more of an effort than it should be.