The story of the demise of Barbara Daly Baekeland is one that seems filled with the kind of intrigue and scandal that would be ripe for a juicy film exposé: money, glamour, betrayal, lust, murder and, most notoriously, incest. While Savage Grace dodges sufficiently the temptation to go for all-out sleaze, the shallow characters we are introduced to render the film rather cold – just why should we care about such a dislikeable group of wealthy bored socialites?
This would make a good companion-piece to P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007); if Daniel Plainview is a turned into a monster by his relentless pursuit of wealth, then the characters in Savage Grace are ruined by wealth they are born or married into. Brooks Baekeland is the multi-millionaire inheritor of the Bakelite fortune, wanting for nothing financially, living a playboy’s life seeking adventure around the world. However, he seems to live very much in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather, jaded of his life of much wealth but little achievement.
The centre of the film is not he, but his wife Barbara and their son Antony, and the unusual relationship that slowly develops between them. As the film opens, we immediately get the measure of her: unstable, heartless, lapping up the rotten decadence of the social scene she inhabits, ready to provoke scandal at any moment. Unable to hold her own in the cultural stakes of the gliterati, her inferiority complex results in a less-than-charming combination of vengeful rudeness and arbitrary promiscuity.
The couple are too wrapped up in their own issues to really care about their offspring; even Barbara’s coddling of her son feels unnatural, a pose. The film covers the span of thirty years, but while the infant Antony emerges into teendom and eventual young manhood, and the setting changes decades and continents, the two adults are oddly static, locked in their respective emotional stases. Antony, meanwhile, has become increasingly withdrawn, whether as a result of his itinerant lifestyle, burgeoning bisexuality or the continued sexual philandering of his parents.
Matters take a turn for the worse when Brooks abruptly takes off with Blanca, the beautiful young Spanish girl Antony had recently rather awkwardly lost his virginity to – this is just the kind of thing that’s going to mess a young man’s head up, isn’t it? This inevitably forces him closer to Barbara, now employing a ‘walker’ to encourage her to get her face back on the social scene, as well as getting her to paint more of her hideous portraits. But as time wears on their relationship becomes increasingly co-dependent and frankly rather weird. If ever there was the sense that a film was not going to end happily…
Julianne Moore gives a routinely strong performance as the monstrous Barbara – is there any other actress that can come close to her on form? If this can form a loose trilogy of similar roles with The Hours (2002) and Far From Heaven (2002), then this does feel the most two-dimensional; though it is the material that is in question, not her acting talent. Stephen Dillane’s Brooks is suitably angst-ridden, and the extraordinary face of Eddie Redmayne – Tadzio from Death in Venice (1971) with Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones – provides ample enigma to the much confused Antony.
Director Kalin, whose previous feature Swoon (1992) centred on a similarly scandal-filled true story, the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, shows real restraint in what could easily descend into shock-and-awe s-exploitation. A fine eye for both period and locational detail make for a visually sumptuous watch. The problem is the material: while an intriguing and somewhat shocking story, one cannot help but feel an icy detatchment from proceedings as the central characters are all so wretchedly pathetic. I knew nothing of the real-life case before watching the film, so the surprise turns that events took were enough to keep me interested. Those familiar with the story looking for insights into these messed-up peoples lives are likely to leave empty-handed. But then again, perhaps they are not worthy of such scrutiny.