Savage Grace (2007) Film. Director: Tom Kalin




“Savage Grace,” Tom Kalin’s long-awaited second feature (after “Swoon”), swoons through a number of lovely, storied places on its way to a sad and sordid end. Narrated by Tony Baekeland (played in young adulthood by Eddie Redmayne), it begins in the post-World War II Manhattan of late-night dinners at the Stork Club and moves on to Paris in the ’50s and then to Spain (Cadaqués and Majorca, to be precise) in the late 1960s and London after that. Written by Howard A. Rodman, “Savage Grace” follows the true, appalling story of Tony and his parents, played by Stephen Dillane and Julianne Moore. Brooks Baekeland, heir to a plastics fortune (his grandfather invented Bakelite), is frustrated by his own lack of ambition and less than kind to his wife, Barbara. For her part, Barbara is impulsive and also somewhat pretentious, striving to jam herself into social niches where she won’t comfortably fit. Greeting a literary scholar who has come for lunch, she asks: “Was Proust truly a homosexual? Qu’est-ce que tu penses?” That line, like so many others in Mr. Rodman’s script, is written and delivered with an arch, brittle self-consciousness that becomes oppressive over time. While it’s likely that the diction and phrasing of the dialogue approximates the idioms of rich expatriates during the decades in question, the characters still seem vague, stilted and unreal. — A. O. Scott



A dramatization of the shocking Barbara Daly Baekeland murder case, which happened in a posh London flat on Friday 17 November 1972. The bloody crime caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic and remains one of the most memorable American Tragedies…



Paul Griffiths

Julianne Moore almost erases memories of the debacle that was Trust The Man with another brave and searing performance. Her leading role in director Tom Kalin’s overdue latest is a reminder of the sustained intensity she can bring to a decently written character.

Howard A Rodman’s excellent script gives her the juicily acidic Barbara Daly, an aspiring socialite who marries into the Bakelite plastics family and fortune. She both desperately craves and resents the wealthy social circles her hubby Brookes Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) can effortlessly take or leave. Upper class and moustachioed, he similarly desires and spurns the woman and what she represents to him.


We join them in New York, 1946, shortly after the birth of their son, Tony, and follow the fortunes of the three episodically through the decadent decades as they flit to Paris, Cadaque, Mallorca and London. Gradually, the films spins around the developing Tony, the derisive treatment he receives from his snooty father and the near sociopathic neediness his mother forces upon him. Tony (Eddie Redmayne) is an effete intellectual, with an upper class background that enables him to cut dispassionately to the quick of an argument, with little, or a callous, regard for the emotional consequences wrought on others. But his disturbing, underwhelming and overpowering parental relationships, especially close with his mother, precipitate a gradual internal implosion and deterioration in his mental health, leading to shocking and violent conclusions.

Half-hackneyed this may sound, but the film follows a book of the same name by Natalie Robins, in turn based on a true story, and Kalin’s excellent film is resolutely compelling, at times downright unsettling. Expertly framed and paced throughout, it adroitly captures the shifting times, settings and tones of the family. More than once the look reminded me of Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, though with less considered polish. These privileged, dented people invite little explicit sympathy, although they certainly merit pathos and the audience’s interest in the slow-burn tragedy they seem intent on unfolding in their lives. The power to draw us into their world – to carry us from location to location, era to era – lies with the tremendous script and fine performances.

Rodman’s screenplay bites like a viper when it has to, with Moore often claiming the most venomous lines, and at other times it shows a deft hand and acute ear for the nuances of conversation and believable dialogue. This is immediately apparent in the fractured but painfully mannered opening scenes between Moore and Dillane. Ingrown fissures are already revealing mutual entrapment and a seething resentment beneath their exchanges, with simple requests and remarks painting a far richer, uncomfortably textured picture.

Moore portrays Barbara in varying states of compulsion, revulsion, restraint, passion and repression with a luminous commitment and absorption. It’s a convincing exploration of a splintering, insecure woman forever drawing a fashionable veil over the question of whether she has been or can ever actually be happy. She finds an able foil in Dillane’s cool-blooded husband, but more impressively in Redmayne’s Tony, looking like an androgynous Jamie Bell meets Ralph Fiennes. He evinces the evolution of Tony’s character, thoughts and (possible) delusions, from palpable teenage confusion and explorations to the more disconcerting convictions of a young adult, with striking sincerity and credibility. An actor to watch (in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, say), though he may be hard pushed to find such a complex and grained role again soon.

Always engrossing, at times decidedly uncomfortable viewing, Savage Grace is accomplished cinematic storytelling that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.



Reviewed by Lisa Mullen


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The story of the disintegration of a wealthy but troubled family is told through five key episodes.

New York 1946. Brooks Baekeland, rich and idle heir to the Bakelite fortune, and his socially ambitious wife Barbara have a fretful night out – Barbara is desperate to make a good impression on her aristocratic fellow diners, but Brooks is alienated and embarrassed. Offended, Barbara, jumps into a passing car and spends the rest of the night with strangers.

Paris 1959. Brooks and Barbara’s young son Tony – who narrates the film – is growing up with a strong bond with his mother but he is unhappy. He feels the strain of having to impress his father’s friends for his mother’s sake, and starts to behave oddly.

Cadaqués, Spain, 1967. Tony, now an attractive young man, begins to experiment with sex and drugs, bringing home his first girlfriend, Blanca. It’s clear, however, that there is a strong attraction between Blanca and Brooks.

Mallorca 1968. Blanca and Brooks are now a couple. Barbara seeks solace first through random sexual encounters and then through the friendship of a bisexual walker, Sam, who seduces both her and Tony. Tony is now openly gay and is sleeping with a Spanish drug dealer. He is showing signs of irrational behaviour – he writes his father a letter and takes it to his house, only to bury it in the front garden. On his return home, he gets into bed with both Sam and his mother. Later that year, in Paris, Barbara attempts suicide and Tony nurses her back to health. Their incestuous relationship continues to develop.

London 1972. Barbara appears to be recovering her mental health but after an argument about a lost dog-collar – Tony’s treasured keepsake from his childhood – he stabs her to death and is taken away by police.


Sex, money, incest, murder: it may be based on a notorious real-life high-society scandal that rocked the wealthy American heirs to the Bakelite plastics fortune, but Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace seems determined to handle the story’s explosive ingredients with the utmost circumspection, turning what could have been a sensational melodrama into something much more complex – though not necessarily more successful as a film.

Kalin’s portrayal of the dysfunctional Baekeland family (Stephen Dillane and Julianne Moore), a loveless couple hogtied by excessive wealth and aching ennui, and their troubled son Tony (Eddie Redmayne), unfolds in fits and starts, with five key incidents between 1947 and 1972 strung loosely together by Tony’s voiceover recollections. The unworkable marriage between frustrated explorer Brooks and his socially ambitious wife Barbara is sketched in quickly, then as quickly falls apart when Brooks falls in love with his son’s first girlfriend. This intergenerational role-swapping signals one of the film’s major themes, that of misplaced intimacy: Barbara’s longstanding taste for casual sex turns out to be the flipside of a longing for closeness that ends up attaching itself to her son, who is ultimately forced to take his father’s role as her protector and her sexual partner.

It’s difficult to tell this kind of story without simply repulsing your audience. Kalin (whose 1992 Swoon was a key film in the New Queer Cinema movement) attempts to solve the problem by leaving his characters’ motivations suggestively – or, if you have a low tolerance for this sort of thing, maddeningly – opaque. Instead, he relies heavily on atmosphere to convey the treacly inertia of the idle rich, all of whom seem to understand very well their essential pointlessness, and evoke it as an excuse for unthinking self-indulgence. This is a key strength of the film’s episodic structure – it underlines the fact that very little changes from one decade to the next when your life is a purposeless wasteland. The characters do not age or develop, Kalin seems to say, because they are incapable of doing so.

The performances are uniformly strong: Julianne Moore uses her trademark luminescence to communicate Barbara’s ill-concealed hunger for experience and love, and she’s a magnetic presence in almost every scene. Stephen Dillane similarly allows Brooks’ shiny surface to buckle and bulge with hidden feelings, while Redmayne is perfectly poised as the eerily intense Tony. Hugh Dancy puts in a scene-stealing turn as bisexual walker Sam, who seduces both mother and son; despite being ruthlessly amoral, he’s the only beacon of warmth and humanity in this chilly emotional landscape.

It’s the froideur of the piece that threatens its success as a piece of film-making. The characters and their milieu are vividly realised, and Kalin makes wonderful use of locations such as a Parisian museum filled with glass cases of stuffed animals, or the organic and intimate grotto where Tony shacks up with his Spanish lover. But he pulls his punches when it comes to the gruesome extent of the Baekelands’ pathological family values. There is a line where tact and delicacy cross into limp hesitancy and even cowardice, and Kalin’s film comes perilously close to it. As symbolised by the empty dog-collar that Tony carries with him as a talisman of missing affection, this is a film all about absence; but like its subjects, it has an absence of its own at its heart.





Uskyld (All That Matters Is Past) (2012) Film. Director: Sara Johnsen


Two brothers in their 40s are found dead in the forest. By their side lies a woman, very weak, but still alive. “All that matters is past” is the story of how Janne meets William after many years of separation. She leaves her family to live with him in a cabin by the river. They recreate the feeling of love and lust that they had as children, being sweethearts playing in the woods. But one day a Chinese baby girl is found floating down the river, and they realize that they are being haunted by William’s brother. William and Janne runs further into the woods, trying to escape from their nemesis.

Written by JRN



TIFF 2012 Review: ALL THAT MATTERS IS PAST Stumbles Off The Rails

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor

Sara Johnsen’s 2005 debut, Kissed By Winter, may not have blown the doors off the international film world but – blessed with strong performances, a well crafted script and a novel viewpoint on the thriller oriented material – it immediately established its creator as one of the bright young talents in Norway’s burgeoning film scene. If only that promise and those strengths were realized in this, her third film, All That Matters Is Past.

Janne (Maria Bonnevie) and William (Kristoffer Joner) have been in love since they were children, a love interrupted by tragedy. So how is it that just weeks after their reunion the duo, along with William’s brother Ruud, were discovered prone on the forest floor with William dead of blood loss, Ruud bludgeoned to death with a stone and Janne clinging barely to life? With that as her premise, Johnsen flashes back to take us through the lives of the trio to show us how we arrived at this supposed tragedy.

But here’s the principal problem: For the tragedy to be tragic, we need to care about these people. We need to feel that someone – either us or them – has lost something that actually matters. And Johnsen fails utterly to provide that emotional connection, both character to character and character to audience. The failure is two fold. First, she casts all three as essentially unlikeable characters. And second, she has them behave in ways that are foolish – if not outright stupid, and utterly defiant of basic logic – that leave the audience feeling, if anything, that what has happened is not tragic, but deserved.

How can you call these people unlikeable? First, they are given no context whatsoever. The core trio exists in an absolute vacuum, Johnsen ignoring anything about any of them which does not directly involve one another. We don’t know them – not at the start of the movie and no better at the end – and you cannot like what you do not know. And all you can do in this case is judge what you do not know based on what behavior you are shown. Behavior such as 14 year old Janne having a fling with Ruud for no reason whatsoever other than to hurt William – who she supposedly loves – while William is entirely passive, save for the occasional instance of tormenting his brother. And Ruud? An absolute caricature that goes no deeper than “Bad! Jealous! Stupid!”

Do I care about a woman who walks out on her family the moment her estranged husband walks into a room? No, I do not. Not when that is how she is introduced to the audience. Am I surprised that things turn out badly when the first thing that the reunited couple does is camp on the land owned by the estranged brother who once – SPOILER here – kidnapped Janne while she was pregnant, made her give birth in a field, and then held her captive for four days? No. No, I am not. In fact, I think they’re incredibly stupid people for going there at all, never mind the fact that they go and tell Ruud that they’re there almost the moment that they arrive.

And here’s the greatest failure of All That Matters Is Past. While it very much embraces the trappings and pretenses of serious art film – multiple urination scenes, a graphic birth sequence, multiple shots of naked pregnant women all scream “This is art, take me seriously” – when you lay out the actual plot line it is laughable in its extremes and willingness to pile outrage upon outrage without any concern for whether any actual people would ever behave in these ways. Telenovelas would be embarrassed to present this plotline and the arty trappings make it just all the more ridiculous. Johnsen’s debut may have been promising but she has gone badly off the rails here.





Ilo Ilo (2013) Film. Director : Anthony Chen



Set in Singapore, Ilo Ilo chronicles the relationship between the Lim family and their newly arrived maid, Teresa. Like many other Filipino women, she has come to this city in search of a better life. Her presence in the family worsens their already strained relationship. Jiale, the young and troublesome son, starts to form a unique bond with Teresa, who soon becomes an unspoken part of the family. This is 1997 and the Asian Financial Crisis is beginning to be felt in the region…


The Guardian, Thursday 1 May 2014

Ilo Ilo is filled with sweetness, humour and humanity: so assured and accomplished that it’s hard to believe this is a first feature. What an impressive debut from 30-year-old Singaporean writer-director Anthony Chen, who graduated four years ago from Britain’s National Film and Television School. In its gentleness, its shrewd psychological insight and unforced accumulation of detail, his film is something to be compared with the work of Taiwanese director Edward Yang.

The story is a domestic drama, with an addictive hint of soap, avowedly autobiographical and based on the director’s own childhood experiences of being cared for (along with two siblings) by a maidservant from the Philippines: the title is a Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home”. Interestingly, the little boy at the movie’s centre is an unspeakably obnoxious brat: imperious, manipulative, slightly obsessive-compulsive. Perhaps all film directors have a little of these qualities somewhere in their pasts.

Nine-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is the son of two stressed working parents in late-1990s Singapore when the economy was tanking and people feared for their jobs. Tian Wen Chen plays the father, Teck, a truly terrible salesman whose attempts to demonstrate his supposedly “unbreakable” glass lead to disaster. Yann Yann Yeo is Jiale’s mum, Hwee Leng, short-tempered and distracted. Jiale’s beloved grandpa, who had been notionally minding Jiale after school, has died, and now his parents have decided to hire a live-in maid for childcare and general domestic duties. This new development, along with the fact that Hwee is pregnant, makes Jiale even more insecure; Chen shows how the boy senses and absorbs his parents’ own anxiety and feeds it back to them in the form of terrible behaviour.

It is in this fraught family nest that the new maid must make herself at home as best she can. This is Teresa, or Terry, tremendously played by Angeli Bayani. She receives in submissive silence the news that she is to be hardly more than a serf: the new mistress demands Terry’s passport from her as soon as she walks in and fails to reprove her son in any meaningful way for the appalling way he talks to Terry.

This group rests on a cat’s-cradle of secrets and lies and cover-ups. Every one of these four people is lying about money. Teck goes through the motions of leaving for work every day, desperate to conceal the truth about his actual employment situation and his stock-market gambles with the family savings. Hwee Leng is privately fascinated with a certain dodgy entrepreneur and his self-improvement seminars. Terry is secretly doing weekend work for cash as a hairdresser, and Jiale is neglecting his schoolwork while he develops a system for predicting the national lottery winning numbers – a system which the school principal finds worryingly plausible. Meanwhile, when Jiale gets into trouble, Terry instinctively covers up for him and enables his behaviour patterns, sensing that denouncing the boy to his mother can only result in being fired.

Yet the miracle that Chen conjures from this poisonously dysfunctional setup is that Jiale and Terry begin to bond, probably beginning with a shocking incident that follows an accident with the balcony washing line. It is partly a Stockholm-syndrome symptom but also a genuine friendship, something that replaces an actual mother-child relationship. Yet the relationship that it replaces is not that of Jiale and Hwee Leng, but Jiale and her own baby, left behind in the Philippines. Terry has been allowed to wear Hwee’s old cast-off clothes and poignantly begins to dress and behave like Jiale’s real mother.

What gives this situation its force is that the division between rich and poor is not as clear as it appeared at the beginning. In the globalised labour market, Singapore’s professional classes are well able to employ those from the Philippines and devolve to them the duties of caring for and perhaps even caring about their children. But Chen shows how there is arrogance and hubris here. When the economy contracts, their haughty attitude is brutally exposed. Could it be that Chen intends Jiale, that pampered prince, to be a satirical embodiment of Singapore itself: cosseted, spoilt and entitled? Certainly those of us who have heard apocryphal tales and scare stories about Singapore’s tough law-enforcement and its corporal punishment will find a certain scene very difficult to watch.

Ilo Ilo is a story told with enormous sympathy and flair, and an almost novelistic skill in getting inside the principals’ heads. Chen is a real film-maker to watch.



APRIL 3, 2014


“Ilo Ilo,” Anthony Chen’s small, wonderful firstfeature film, is an acutely perceptive examination of middle-class life in Singapore during a 1997 financial crisis that sent tremors of panic through Asia’s developing countries. Its semi-autobiographical story focuses on a family of three, with a baby on the way, suddenly facing uncertainty.

The mild-mannered Teck (Chen Tianwen), who works in sales, and his pregnant wife, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), a secretary, toil long, stressful hours in their drive toward upward mobility. A thorn in their side is their neglected 10-year-old son, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), a troublemaker at his elementary school, where officials — driven to their wits’ end by his behavior — summon Hwee Leng from her workplace when he misbehaves. When Jiale punches another boy, he is threatened with expulsion.

Teck is a passive-aggressive, grown-up version of his son. He defies Hwee Leng by smoking cigarettes in the hallway outside their apartment. At a family birthday party, where she allows him one drink, he gets drunk and is found collapsed in a bathroom. A minor crisis erupts when a cigarette that Jiale tried smoking is found in a toilet, and Teck is scolded.

The bad economic news breaks just as Hwee Leng hires Teresa (Angeli Bayani), a 28-year-old Filipino with a child back in the Philippines, as a housekeeper. One of her duties is to watch over Jiale, who refuses to obey her. In one incident, the boy flees on his bike and breaks his arm when he is struck by a car.

Hwee Leng, the hardest character to like, is suspicious and demanding; she talks down to Teresa, issues curt orders and never expresses even a hint of gratitude. She may behave monstrously, but you come to understand why and to grudgingly admire her tenacity. You also notice that her bark is much worse than her bite, and that behind her severity is a reservoir of love.

“Ilo Ilo” increasingly focuses on the relationship of Jiale and Teresa, who is as financially insecure as her employers and supplements what she makes as a housekeeper with a hairdressing sideline. Teresa is so servile that she never loses her temper with either Hwee Leng or Jiale, no matter how provoked. As a bond slowly develops between Teresa and the boy, he begins to express his affection in small, subtle ways, and Hwee Leng becomes resentful. “Ilo Ilo” could have sentimentalized this relationship, but it doesn’t. And by the end of a movie that could have been a tear-jerker, you empathize with everybody equally.

The economic woes that weighed heavily 17 years ago in Singapore aren’t all that different from American workplace anxiety during and after the 2007-8 financial crisis. Fueling the family members’ tension is the unvoiced fear that just one slip on the ladder could cost them everything. They are a mirror of society, clutching at a dream that may suddenly be out of reach.

This remarkably terse movie doesn’t waste a word or an image. It refuses to linger over each little crisis its characters endure. And its detachment lends a perspective that widens the film’s vision of people reacting to events beyond their control. This family and Singapore belong to a complex, tightly knit social organism in which, consciously or not, every part is sensitive to every other.