It's hard to imagine that any faithful adaptation of Toni Morrison's slavery-informed ghost story would have been well received, and harder still when you take the casting into account. Yet, its status as Jonathan Demme's follow-up to Silence of the Lambs (adaptation-wise, since Philadelphia and a handful of documentaries intercede the two), and the raw brutality of the source material kept me on the lookout for an opportunity to watch it.
The first surprise is that Oprah is pretty good in it. She's sport enough to be felt up by Danny Glover, reveal a nip, squat and pee, be bloody and disgusting, fling infants into posts, etc. Beyond the cheap thrill of all that, her persona is even kept well in check, to the point that I could imagine somebody watching it and saying "No way, that's Oprah??" Maybe. On the other hand, she is outdone by nearly every other performer in the movie (excepting a particularly uninvolving Danny Glover), and occasionally triggers a hint of gag reflex when caught in a sustained close-up. In the end, more than merely surviving the potentially disastrous casting of Ms. Winfrey, the film benefits from it, deriving most of its occult value from the aforementioned thrill of watching her pulp it up.
Far more brilliant (and probably also contributing to the movie's poor reception) is the casting of insanely-beautiful Thandie Newton as the ghost. A part of me will never forgive Demme for showing her naked in such strange, creepy, unerotic contexts (the same part of me that giggled when Oprah pissed, I suppose). She really is the perfect undead: beautiful and sinister in grotesquely vivid measures. We are introduced to her first in non-corporeal form as she wreaks havoc in her haunt of the house of Winfrey, plucking out the dog's eyeball and other shenanigans. Danny Glover shows up and exerts some alpha-masculinity, somehow prompting Beloved's human incarnation, who emerges from the water covered in insects.
This ordeal with Thandie Newton coming out of the water is such powerfully-wrought horror, I could scarcely believe I wasn't watching an unidentified classic. Demme marries Morrison's fleshy fantasy to the seductive decay of Clive Barker/Bernard Rose and foreshadows all the best tricks of the Japanese horror-remake craze (water, insects, wheezing, deceptive beauty) in one fell swoop. When asked her name, Beloved spells it out in a series of croaks as the camera ostentatiously pans in. It's utterly inconceivable that anybody else but Ms. Newton could so nail this delivery.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, Oprah's character Sethe escaped from the plantation (the mysteriously infernal Sweet Home) with her children. Fearing capture and return by the Home's Lefors-esque* bogey Schoolteacher, she tries to kill her babies and herself to put them "somewhere safe". She succeeds with Beloved before her fellow free-people intervene, leaving Sethe ostracized and alone to whither with her remaining daughter under the reign of the dead one's poltergeist.
The novel finds its raison d'etre in the evaluation of Sethe's misdeed, her rejection from and eventual reintegration into her community through her living daughter. Well, the movie sort of gets it right. It's fortunate that Demme makes as much use as he does of community matriarch Baby Sugg's epic sermons (in the novel, among the most beautiful and inspiring prose written about slavery I've encountered). Suggs urges her fellow escapees to "love your flesh...love it hard," because Whitey sure as hell won't. Sethe has an inability to embrace her freedom as such, valuing it only insofar as it marks her triumph against Sweet Home. She is still living in slavery's shadow; besides the infanticide, recall that the film opens with her stubbornly living with this ghost, this haunted remnant of past horrors, as a personal fuck-you to Schoolteacher.
Demme clearly understands the source material, and doesn't make the mistake of letting the horror factor blot out the more subtle conflicts at work. The film omits much detail as to just how fucked up a place Sweet Home really is, cataloging just enough atrocity to create the impression of an opaque, impenetrable nightmare. This is all well and good, but unfortunately, Beloved herself quickly degenerates from ephemeral insectophile into wince-worthy camp under the lens of an increasingly disinterested director. The trouble here is that Beloved's presence becomes stranger and stranger while we pay less and less attention to her, resulting in a fatally ludicrous sequence with her naked, pregnant, making faces, and evaporating in a particularly cheesy dissolve.
While the film evolves towards powerful and subtle confrontation with the story's core issues, Beloved's portrayal stagnates somewhere around when Danny Glover touches her "on the inside part". Recall that in Lambs, he saved Buffalo Bill's most insidious moment for the very end: after "It puts the lotion in the basket," the mangina, etc, he THEN gropes at the blinded Clarice in first-person nightvision. Without the continuing elaboration of the horror of Bill, we would have been left with a far more tedious and tensionless climax. Such is the case with the deeply incomplete Beloved.