There is nothing very savage or very graceful about Savage Grace, a lurid, faux-sophisticated telling of a true story about lurid, faux-sophisticated millionaires. It is very pretty, and it feigns elegance well, but it is tawdry and shallow.
If you do not remember the 1972 incident involving the Baekeland family -- the obscenely wealthy Europe-trotting socialites whose money came from the invention of Bakelite plastic -- I will not spoil too much of it for you. We begin in 1946, when Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) and his wife Barbara (Julianne Moore) have just had a baby, an event which has failed to help their frosty, tempestuous relationship. Barbara turns heads when they go out, the very picture of a refined woman; however, her filthy mouth and libertine ways (she and Brooks both cheat on each other regularly) belie any outward appearances of class.
Next it's 1959 in Paris. The Baekelands' son, Tony (Barney Clark), is a precocious 12-year-old whose best friend is his mother. This would probably be the case even if Dad weren't cold and frequently absent, but it doesn't help. Tony and Barbara's relationship is unsettlingly close, not entirely inappropriate yet but certainly on a road bound for it. One night Brooks throws a tantrum and leaves, Barbara follows him to a hotel, and Tony is left alone -- so he invites a friend his age over to spend the night. Tony's parents return in the morning to find this strange kid asleep in Tony's bed while Tony luxuriates in the bathtub.
The Baekelands are a truly effed-up family, and it only increases with time. Eventually Tony is grown up (played by Eddie Redmayne) and gay, though he dallies with a young woman named Blanca (Elena Anaya), whom his father eventually runs off with. Barbara spends time with Sam (Hugh Dancy), a gay gigolo whose sexuality -- like seemingly everyone else's in the film -- is not exactly fixed in one place on the spectrum.
For a while the film is passable as a glossy story of rich people's tedious, melodramatic problems. The direction by Tom Kalin (Swoon), working from Howard A. Rodman's adaptation of Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson's book, is fluid and occasionally compelling.
The trouble, ultimately, is in the facts of the story. Some very appalling things happen later on, breaking some serious taboos, and Kalin does not shy away from them. He can't be blamed for including them, of course, since they comprise the most interesting part of the Baekeland family history; the question is why make a movie about such debased, ludicrous people at all?
If the film delved deeply into Barbara and Tony's psyches and sought to explain what made them behave the way they did, then there would be some redeeming value in exploring these unpleasant matters. But Savage Grace doesn't delve. It barely wades. Julianne Moore's typically enchanting performance is not enough to save it, nor can Eddie Redmayne's work as the listless, spoiled rich kid do much to improve things. I can only imagine that if these two actors run into one another years from now at an awards banquet or charity dinner, they will laugh and laugh at the outrageous things they had to do in Savage Grace -- that, or they'll pretend not to see one another and never speak of it again.
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Eric D. Snider (website) loves his mom, too, but come on.