Appellate Judge Tom Becker never met Savage Grace, but he knew her sister, Untamed Eleanor.
Truth is more shocking than fiction.
Brooks and Barbara Baekeland were beautiful, wealthy, indulgent, decadent, petty, self-centered, witty, desired, neurotic, promiscuous, vain, faithless, shallow, and in some circles, famous.
Their only child, Tony, never had a chance.
Savage Grace tells the true story of the Baekelands, a mid-century, upper-class American scandal involving incest, murder, and madness. Adapted from the book by Natalie Robins and Steven Aronson, the film stars Julianne Moore as Barbara and Eddie Redmayne (The Other Boleyn Girl) as the emotionally stunted Tony, whose homosexuality was considered a defect by his mother—one that she went to extraordinary and gross lengths to cure.
While it's not a big-budget film, Savage Grace is good looking with nice locations and costumes, features a lush and ever-present score, pretty cinematography, and so on. It's slick and professional, and the story is told in an agreeably linear fashion.
It is also not half as interesting as it should be.
Savage Grace was directed by Tom Kalin, whose 1992 debut, Swoon, was a touchstone of the New Queer Cinema. Like Savage Grace, Swoon was based on a true crime story that was steeped in psychosexual horror—the Leopold and Loeb killings on the 1920s. The earlier film was a low-budget, independent feature that's stylistically adventurous and thematically complex. It's less a recounting than observation and commentary on the event and the players.
Savage Grace, on the other hand, is a pretty straightforward retelling of the Baekeland story. It offers narrative but little insight, and consequently, it's just not that compelling. The characters are motivated by self-interest and psychological and emotional problems. We don't get to know them well enough to sympathize or empathize with any of them, so it's just a matter of watching people say and do outrageous and improper things without there being any connection or deeper understanding.
The book by Robins and Aronson is more like a non-fiction novel than a true crime tome, telling the story fragmented, through interviews, letters, quotations, and articles. The skewed, unreliable perspective makes this a challenging, engrossing read.
It's a shame Kalin didn't take a stylistic cue from the book. Straightened out and presented as a narrative, Savage Grace becomes oddly lifeless. Unlike the intricate and original Swoon, Savage Grace plays like a Lifetime-after-midnight movie. It relies too much on the "shocking" elements of the story to propel it. Events that were suggested in the book—and may or may not have actually happened—are played out in real time here, and things like an incestuous three-way end up being surprisingly ho-hum. Despite the subject matter, it's all very conventional, down to the folky and inappropriate song over the closing credits.
Julianne Moore comes out of the gate swinging, and for a while, it seems she's going to make the whole thing work through sheer force of her talents and her will. But as much as Moore tries to create a fully formed character, she's running against a wall, since Barbara Baekeland, from all accounts, was not a fully formed human being. She was a beautiful cipher who married well and whose insanity was entertaining in small dollops. Here, Moore is onscreen in practically every scene, and her character's outbursts get old quickly. As husband Brooks, Stephen Dillane (The Hours) does well in a too-brief role. Eddie Redmayne is bland as the disconnected Tony, giving us little in the way of transitional moments. Hugh Dancy (Basic Instinct 2) offers an entertaining cameo as a bisexual suitor for Barbara—in real life, the person this character was based on sued the production for defamation of character.
The transfer looks great, very clear with vivid colors. The extras are skimpy and disappointing. There are two featurettes from "IFC: In Theaters," the kinds of filler that you get when a movie runs short on TV. Combined, they run less than 10 minutes. Both feature lots of clips from the film and some interviews with cast and director. Most disappointing was "The Back Story." I was hoping that this was going to be a mini doc on the Baekeland story, the kind of thing you might find on a true crime show on E! or A&E; instead, it was just the actors talking about how happy they were to be associated with the film and how exciting that it was based on actual events—in other words, the standard puff piece.
Well made, but ultimately too restrained, Savage Grace should have been either a startling and original work of art or an extravagantly guilty wallow. Unfortunately, it's stuck in the middle of the road. It's graceful enough, but really should have been more savage.
Guilty of good taste where none is warranted.
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