Savage Grace Review

Savage Grace is a film that's much easier to admire than like. A cold, hard glare at the peccadilloes of the American upper classes in Europe, it has the benefit of strong performances and stylish direction. But the glacial atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive to the point where its hard to invest much interest in the characters and, consequently, the tragic conclusion lacks the punch it might otherwise have delivered.

In a luxurious London flat, during the autumn of 1972, Barbara Daly Baekeland (Moore) was murdered by her 25 year old son, Antony (Redmayne). During a troubled and somewhat decadent life, Barbara drowned her sorrows in drink and took a series of lovers to distract herself from the coldness of her marriage to Brooks Baekeland (Dillane), the heir to the Baekelite plastics fortune. Her personal demons led her to attempt suicide after Brooks left her for a much younger woman.

The film, based upon a 1985 bestseller, expands upon these bare bones of fact to startling effect, alleging that Barbara’s close, not to say unhealthily intimate, relationship with her son was actively incestuous – his homosexuality notwithstanding. It’s suggested that she hired prostitutes to ‘cure’ him and, ultimately, took the job upon herself in an act which led to her murder. The truth of this is a moot point, although one of Barbara’s lovers, Sam, has objected to a sequence in which he is depicted as taking both mother and son as lovers and, on one occasion, to bed at the same time. The best guess seems to be that Antony was psychologically damaged, possibly schizophrenic, and his relationship with Barbara excacerbated his condition to a point where he was driven to kill her. After the murder, he was committed to Broadmoor and after his release, in 1980, he went to live with his grandmother, killing her a week later. Finally, in 1981, he killed himself while in prison.

It’s a horribly sad story, capped by the fate of the tragic, hopelessly fucked-up Antony, and the temptation to treat it as a full-tilt Sirkian melodrama must have been almost too much to bear. But director Tom Kalin, who made Swoon about the Leopold and Loeb case, isn’t that kind of filmmaker. Instead of grand tragedy and biting social comment, he goes for a chilly style more reminiscent of Otto Preminger’s story about the rich at play in Europe, Bonjour Tristesse. This has the advantage of being a relatively unfamiliar approach and it pays dividends, especially in the first half of the film where the relationships between mother, father and son are dispassionately and ruthlessly dissected. Stephen Dillane is marvellous as Brooks, worrying over his son one minute and stealing his girlfriend the next, and there’s a fine contribution from Hugh Dancy as Sam, the lover who seems to be the only half-decent human being on show. The second half of the film, concentrating mostly on the deteriorating bond between Barbara and Antony, is less compelling because the extreme emotions call for a style of filmmaking which is more passionately engaged with the characters – one can imagine Todd Haynes doing wonders with it. Kalin doesn’t seem to like his characters very much, nor even to have much empathy with them and, as such, he comes across as a disengaged scientist. It’s hard to film an act of incestuous rape followed by an act of murder without arousing the indignation of the viewer, but somehow Kalin manages it.

Finally, then, the film disappoints because one wants it to be shatteringly powerful and it insistently remains no more than interesting. Still, it would be even less without its two major virtues – the performances of Eddie Redmayne and the majestic Julianne Moore. Redmayne has irritated me in the past with his mannerisms, particularly in the BBC adaptation of Tess Of The D’Ubervilles, but he’s perfect here for a part which requires him to be first sly and cunning and then vulnerable and bemused. Particularly noteworthy is the sense of real sexual heat in the scenes between Antony and his gay lover – one encounter is memorably destroyed by an interruption from Barbara. Julianne Moore is, as you’d expect, superb and surprises by refusing to play Barbara for easy sympathy as a wronged wife. Her Barbara is spiky and difficult, behaving appallingly and then wondering why she’s left alone. We don’t like Barbara very much but we are certainly fascinated by what she’s going to do next.

Despite the problems I have with the film’s approach, it would be unfair to fail to acknowledge the brilliance with which it is made. DP Juan Miguel Azpiroz makes the international locations look beautiful, contrasting the superficially idyllic past with the gloom of the London flat where events reach their climax. Victor Molero’s production design and Deborah Chamber’s art direction are both note perfect for period. Howard Rodman’s screenplay does a fine job of elucidating events from the complex book and his dialogue is frequently pithy and amusingly lewd.

The Disc

Revolver's UK R2 disc of Savage Grace offers good picture and sound quality but is very light on extra features. The anamorphic 1.85:1 image is often dazzlingly crisp and sharp with exceptionally strong colours. There are two choices of soundtrack, either Dolby 2.0 or Dolby 5.1. The latter option provides more atmosphere and certainly showcases the lush music score to pleasing effect.

The only extra is a relatively brief making-of featurette which lasts about twenty minutes and includes interviews with the director and the stars. It's an interesting piece but I would have liked it to be longer and I was left wishing for more technical comments from the director. A commentary track would have been very welcome in this regard. There's also little content about the real-life basis of the story - viewers might well get more out of the film if they find out a bit about the Baekelands in advance.

Savage Grace is a compelling but cold experience which engages the brain without really touching the heart. However, whatever you think of the movie, Revolver's DVD is a fine way to see it.

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Last updated: 16/07/2018 21:05:01

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