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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 10/15/1998,


For about five minutes, Jonathan Demme's decision to adapt the rarefied, magical realism of Toni Morrison's Beloved as if it were a Stephen King novel seems inspired. The camera tracks along a graveyard, halting on a headstone engraved with the film's title. A house erupts in mindboggling poltergeist antics, a dog flies across the room into a wall and its eye pops out, and two terrified young boys pack up and leave as their mom, Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), sticks the eye back in. The passion and the phantasmagoria that got left to the imagination in Morrison's Pulitzer-winning novel explode into dazzling cinematic literalism.

Not for long, however. Winfrey puts in a meaty performance as the escaped slave whose refuge in post-bellum Ohio disintegrates when a ghost from the past returns, and Danny Glover as Paul D, a fellow slave from the old plantation who shows up at her doorstep years later, is wise, sensual, and raffish. But what were they thinking with Thandie Newton's Exorcist-meets-Rain-Man performance in the title role, a mystery woman whose secret is as obvious as her mannered, village-idiot acting? It sets the tone for Demme's overwrought, artsy effort, with bucolic flashbacks à la The Color Purple and brutal flashbacks à la Amistad intercutting the ongoing histrionics. Demme should have taken a clue from Kimberley Elise, whose portrayal of Sethe's daughter Denver is contained, nuanced, and devastatingly authentic. Had he exercised similar restraint, his Beloved might have been less belabored.

-- Peter Keough