By A. O. SCOTT
“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…
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.