Oprah Winfrey, the wealthy queen of warm-and-fuzzy talk television and a gushing, vastly influential promoter of every book that happens to strike her fancy, didn't exactly make an obvious match with "Beloved."
After all, Toni Morrison's novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, is a rich, narratively complex piece of literature filled with passages of stark brutality and surprising tenderness. Winfrey, who read the book in pre-publication, immediately bought the film rights and has spent more than a decade as producer, shepherding the screenplay to completion and attempting to convince various directors of her ability to play Sethe, the former slave haunted by a murdered infant daughter.
Yes, Winfrey had scored an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role in "The Color Purple," Stephen Spielberg's rather glossy movie about African-American life in a small Georgia town. But that was in 1986, long before Winfrey became an immediately recognizable brand name. Oprah is the everywoman celebrity.
Cast your doubts and lowered expectations aside. "Beloved," flawlessly directed by Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Philadelphia"), is a bracing, constantly surprising and sometimes experimental evocation of the physical, emotional and spiritual scars left by slavery.
The adaptation, credited to Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks, captures the spirit and sometimes the letter of Morrison's difficult and daring novel. The film makes a strong case as another major contender, after "The Truman Show" and "Saving Private Ryan," for the best-picture Oscar.
The title character, eventually identified as the child Sethe killed after mistakenly believing her children were about to be captured, first makes her presence known as a spirit invading the body of an out-of-control dog. Sethe's young boys flee from their home, their mother resets the canine's eyeball, a mirror falls and cracks, and we skip ahead eight years.
The creature is next revealed as a strange orange glow oozing from the very walls of the family's dilapidated two-story house in rural Ohio. Paul D (Danny Glover), who had been enslaved with Sethe and her long-gone husband on the Sweet Home plantation, shows up after 18 years spent wandering. "What kind of evil you got in there?" he asks. "It ain't evil, just sad," explains the long-suffering Sethe.
As probably indicated by its nearly three-hour length, "Beloved" is the kind of film that takes its time. But this is a well-told tale, and these are characters with whom we want to take the sometimes trying journey.
Winfrey, deglamorized and nearly unrecognizable, sheds her Oprah skin immediately and fully inhabits the body of a woman so severely and repeatedly whipped that the scar on her back resembles a tree.
Sethe, becoming reacquainted with her old friend, speaks to him in hushed tones about her life since escaping from Sweet Home. Brief, shocking flashbacks splash onto the screen, describing with blunt horror the molestation -- a plundering of her mother's milk -- she suffered prior to the beating. The spirit of Beloved abruptly begins to attack the house, sending furniture flying and finally retreating when forced back by Paul D.
The lost child makes its return in the form of Beloved (Thandie Newton), who emerges from what looks like primordial ooze and is restored to health by Sethe's daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise of "Set It Off"). The visitor is a 2-year-old in the body of a woman, with shaky legs, immature eating habits and a demonic voice just this side of Linda Blair's in "The Exorcist." Beloved is alternately frightening and, when revealing her love for Sethe, vulnerable. "This is where I am," she says, her saucer eyes gazing fondly at her newfound mother. The character also manages to practically rape Paul D. Newton ("Jefferson in Paris") goes full throttle in a role that might have been pure showbiz in lesser hands.
Impressive, too, is Beah Richards as Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law and an itinerant outdoors preacher whose spirited, humanistic exhortations -- shown in flashback -- lead listeners to clap and shout and dance in response, and to recall her with fondness many years after her death.
Just as in the novel, there's no tidy conclusion to ease minds about the traumatic events related in "Beloved." Beloved mysteriously vanishes, Sethe is driven to a temporary madness, Paul D leaves and returns and Denver finds the strength to pursue a life outside the four walls of her claustrophobic home.
Demme, co-producer Winfrey and all tell this story with the help of consummate performances full of subtlety and strength, and as memorable and moving a series of images likely to flicker across theater screens this year.