Beloved (1998)

I’ve never read Toni Morrison’s seminal novel that this is based on and came to it as a Demme completist more than anything but crikey does this have a lot to plow through. The combination of sincere humanist storytelling with imagery and subject matter that is genuinely disturbing and distressing, not to mention the supernatural undercurrent, is hard to swallow in places but as a tonal experiment it’s very ambitious.

It definitely suffers from “lets adapt a big important book into a big important movie” bloat but the three hour running time is nevertheless justified with the numerous grace notes and character tangents all being pleasurable. Beloved holds some of the most striking images I’ve seen in a mainstream “prestige picture” of this calibre (the film bombed, unsurprisingly, but it was certainly mounted as a potential Oscar contender). The southern gothic grotesqueries are piercing and individual sequences – the opening poltergeist attack, the introduction of Thandie Newton emerging from a swamp swarming with mosquitos – are proper horror-movie moments but damn are they beautiful.

Demme is at full-force here. Calibrating all the performances in his own way and being stubbornly experimental with his technique. The film does become less interesting the longer it runs but it does have texture and soul that carries it home. It combines all Demme’s talents whilst also showcasing him pushing himself into more leftfield, abstract territory. This may also be his scariest film by some margin, and yes that includes Silence of the Lambs. Here, the horror is deeply, tragically real. Not a complete success, but a pretty remarkable achievement everything considered.

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