“Savage Grace,” the latest indie dunk in the family-pathology swamp, presents the colorfully tragic saga of Barbara, Brooks and Tony Baekeland, the jet-setting clan who degenerated from high-society faves to the stuff of tabloid headlines in the mid-to-late 20th century.
It’s a doozy of a story filled with international settings, marital spats, adultery, incest and death; the film indeed engages you with its glittery surfaces and sensational plot turns.
But this is material that demands psychological dimension and emotional power, and the movie contains neither.
The director is Tom Kalin, who explored the Leopold-Loeb case in 1992’s “Swoon” and is now dealing again, though less successfully, with destructive relations, violent crime and homophobia.
The source material is Natalie Robins and Stephen M.L. Aronson’s book, adapted by screenwriter Howard A. Rodman. He has crafted a combination marital drama, travelogue of the rich and mother-son roller-coaster ride, with both Chanel and Sophocles in the details.
“Almost a movie star” in her single days, socialite Barbara Daly (Julianne Moore) has married cold, callous plastics-fortune heir Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), and, by the time son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) is born, the pair’s relationship has soured to the point of boredom and contempt.
Spoiled by Barbara and ignored by Brooks, Tony grows into a troubled young man whose bisexuality bothers both parents and whose girlfriend, Blanca (Elena Anaya), Brooks seduces andeventually marries.
Tony’s male lovers wind up in Barbara’s tangle, and Tony, while aching to escape from Barbara’s grasp, feels compelled to tend to his unbalanced mother. The thicket turns terrible when Barbara, in her loneliness hedonism and homophobia, takes the already too-close relationship over the line.
While all of this spells Greek tragedy, Kalin generally doesn’t treat his material as big-bang melodrama. He appears interested in presenting a serious, nuanced, human picture of a rise and fall involving mediocre people compromised by ravenous need, decadence and obscene amounts of money.
And Moore, on that wavelength, gives a terrific, rich performance. Both despicable in her narcissism and accessible in her unhappiness, Moore’s Barbara commands your consideration and keeps the drama solid.
But she deserves deeper material, as do her co-stars, and the screenplay simply delivers one shocker after another with little insight into what drives or ails these well-dressed but horribly behaving characters. While Kalin and Moore inspire you to try, and Moore deserves accolades, you can’t feel satisfyingly invested in these sorry lives.
Savage Grace (2 and a half stars)
Starring Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne, Stephen Dillane, Elena Anaya
Written by Howard A. Rodman, based on the book “Savage Grace” by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson
Directed by Tom Kalin
Running time 1 hour 37 minutes