Beloved is a stupendous film. The sad fact though is that it was a box-office failure. It is an exceptional film, one that shows Jonathan Demmes talents as a director far better than either the overrated Silence of the Lambs and the simplistically message-heavy Philadelphia. Demme takes his time telling the story. The film is extremely faithful to the novel and as a result reigns in at nearly three hours long. The story itself unfolds almost elliptically back and forward across time it is often a puzzle trying to piece together elements of the complex backstory. An extraordinary degree of attention has been placed into creating a sense of authentic-seeming historical verisimilitude. Demme frequently composes long scenes that do not actually carry story but simply exist to accrue detail. The film is also exquisitely photographed.
As a ghost story, Beloved is unique. Jonathan Demme successfully avoids any cliches of the genre ghost story. There are no spectral apparitions, billowing curtains and scared heroines in bosomy nightgowns. It could be called a Magical Realist ghost story, one where the supernatural blends with a superbly well-detailed historical background. Here Thandie Newton gives an amazingly haunted performance that ranges from a gaping, autistic, child-like blankness to the dangerously seductive. There is a genuinely spooky scene where, in the haunted rhythm of her hesitant, halting, child-like speech, she talks about abandonment by her mother and being in the dark where we suddenly piece together the fact that she may have returned from the dead.
However, the films greatest impact is not as a ghost story but in the emotional unfoldings of past secrets. There is an absolutely shattering sequence in the middle of the film where we learn just how Oprah Winfreys daughter died, which may count as one of the most shocking scenes ever put on film. The sheer savagery and intensity of the emotion on Lisa Gay Hamiltons face as she is confronted in the barn is frighteningly raw. In the last twenty minutes of the film, Jonathan Demme gives us some heart-rendering images of Denver growing up of finding all the food in the house gone, of the baskets of food turning up outside the house, and going and tearfully applying for a job. It makes for an enormously emotional ending to a lovingly crafted epic of a film.
The saddest part in all of this was the films complete neglect by the Academy Awards who only nominated it for Best Costume Design, where it deserved a great deal more than that.
Director Jonathan Demme was a protege of Roger Corman (who often makes cameos in Demmes films). Demmes other genre films are the influential serial killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and the remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Demme has made other mainstream successes such as Stop Making Sense (1984), Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988) and Rachel Getting Married (2008).
(Winner in this sites Top 10 Films of 1998 list. Winner for Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Supporting Actress (Thandie Newton) and Best Cinematography and Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay at this sites Best of 1998 Awards).