Toni Morrison's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved sets before us the nightmarish brutalities of slavery, the yearning of the slaves for freedom, and the terrible struggle of deeply wounded souls to "beat back the past." At the moral center of the story is an elderly black preacher whose woodlands services try to repair the broken hearts of her people with affirmations of their worth and beauty.
It's no wonder that Morrison's poetic, mysterious, and endlessly twisting and turning storyline would prove to be a challenge for filmmakers. Director Jonathan Demme and screenplay writers Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks have fashioned a needlessly long and operative treatment that sometimes overwhelms, and too often underwhelms, this portrait of one woman's dark night of the soul.
Oprah Winfrey gives a valiant and intense performance as Sethe, an independent former slave who in 1873 is living in a small house outside Cincinnati with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise). The house is haunted by a ghost of sadness just as she is haunted by memories of herself 18 years earlier (Lisa Gay Hamilton) when, abused and battered, she barely escaped with her life from a slave plantation. She arrived with a newborn baby at the home of Baby Suggs (Beah Richards), the woodlands preacher.
Sethe's situation seems to change when an old friend from the plantation, Paul D (Danny Glover), gives up his vagabond ways to settle down with her and Denver. But their brief interlude of familial happiness is shattered by Beloved (Thandie Newton), a strangely backward and vengeful young woman who shows up on their doorstep and soon takes over the household. Is she the hungry ghost of Sethe's older daughter, who died tragically? Eventually, Paul D learns the terrible secret that has smothered his lover's spirit and re-enslaved her heart in guilt, anger, and grief.
Beloved will speak powerfully to all those who have known great sorrow from a past trauma. "Anything dead coming back to life hurts," Sethe learns during her daring run for freedom. The way back cannot be through self-hate. "Love your flesh." "Love your heart," Baby Suggs urges the gathered community of free men and women. Laughing, dancing, and weeping all help. So does accepting the preciousness of your own being, as Paul D tells Sethe.
And finally, realize that healing comes through community. Deliverance never arrives in isolation but in the genuine tears and prayers of those who feel a kinship with your broken heart. These spiritual messages, which are deep and true, redeem any structural flaws of this ambitious film.