NEW YORK — 'Beloved" arrives with some of the season's most impressive movie credentials: based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, directed by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, featuring stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
And it tells one of the season's most harrowing stories. Set in the Midwest shortly after the Civil War, it focuses on a household that's literally haunted by the aftereffects of slavery and the awful secret of a woman who loved her children too much to let them suffer its torments.
As powerful as its subject is, Morrison's novel gains most of its intensity not from plot or psychology but from the language with which it's told. Instead of shaping her tale for maximum drama, Morrison twists it into fractured, tortured convolutions that reflect the traumas its characters have endured and the oppressiveness of the memories inflicted by slavery on all who have borne its traces.
Demme's version serves the worthy purpose of summoning up those memories, holding them under Hollywood's bright lights, and reminding us of the racist heritage that Americans have yet to transcend.
But what his movie lacks is the sense of earthiness and urgency that surges through Morrison's pages. Aside from some searingly violent moments, the film is bathed in glossy colors and ear-soothing music, as if the filmmakers didn't trust their material to move us on its own.
Much of the acting is solid, but earnest performances can't give the picture all the bite and excitement it sorely needs. Hollywood is watching "Beloved" to see if white audiences will respond to a black-centered story. If it languishes at the box office, though, the reason may simply be that it's more picturesque than involving.
* Rated R; contains explicit violence and nudity. David Sterritt's e-mail address is: