"Savage Grace" tells the story of Barbara Daly Baekeland (Julianne Moore), married to Brookes Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), the heir to the Bakelite Plastics fortune. Picking up in New York City, right after World War II, we meet the Baekelands as they prepare for an evening out on the town. Barbara seems more interested in becoming a socialite and using her marriage to get ahead in society, dragging her husband to one dinner out after another. Brookes would rather just stay in, with his wife and son, but he gives in to Barbara and they head out for a night on the town. They leave their new baby, Tony with Barbara's mother and go to the Stork Club. Barbara is more interested in experiencing life and leaves her husband to trot off with complete strangers. Returning home late that evening, Barbara finds Brookes still with her, almost as though he is challenging her to leave him. Forward ten years and the family now lives in Paris, and Barbara and Tony (Barney Clark) share a very "close" relationship. They share picnic lunches in the park together, complete with wine, and Tony brings his mother breakfast in bed. Barbara continues trying to climb the social ladder and invites famous people to their house for dinner, getting upset at some perceived slight. Later, as Tony (Eddie Redmayne) grows up and they move to Spain, Barbara can no longer hide the fact her son is, at the least bisexual (he seems to have some interest in a pretty Spanish girl, but he also likes guys). As she tries to climb the social register and become an important member of society, she has to deal with the jealousy she experiences towards her son's love interests. At the same time, Brookes leaves her and shacks up with Tony's Spanish girlfriend, leaving Barbara distraught. She seeks the aid of Sam Green (Hugh Dancy), a man adept at helping women in her situation. Sam is gay and has all the right contacts to help her re-enter society. He also has more than a passing attraction to Tony and Barbara has a passing attraction to Sam, so they all come together one fateful night. As Barbara and Tony's attraction grows, their relationship becomes more twisted and out of balance. Flash forward ten more years, and Barbara and Tony are living in London…
"Savage Grace", directed by Tom Kalin ("Swoon", producer of "I Shot Andy Warhol"), the story is one twisted piece of work. More interestingly, it is based on actual events, so these things actually happened in some shape and form. The film, co-produced by Christine Vachon, the woman behind many of Gus Van Sant's films and many other hallmarks of independent cinema, doesn't shy away from the inherent sexual overtones, however outrageous, and paints an interesting portrait of this family's strange, deviant life.
Tony (Redmayne) provides narration at key points, telling us about his father's reactions to certain key moments in his life, revealing what he thinks about Barbara's attention to her son. These moments help to reveal to us that someone is, at the very least, aware of what this behavior is; someone sees that this relationship is not normal. But then Brookes is no angel either and has his own affairs.
As Tony becomes an attractive young man, his family moves to Spain and the young Baekeland finds himself drawn to a rugged, attractive, tousled Spanish man who also happens to deal drugs. Tony gets drawn into this exotic man's life and his mother seems to know full well what they are doing. When Tony becomes interested in a young Spanish girl, Barbara seems threatened by the relationship. When mother and father take their son and his new girlfriend on a road trip, they get one room for the kids. Barbara almost pushed them together, as a sort of test. The kids quickly undress and snuggle together, but all they can do is laugh.
Barbara's plan seems to have worked.
When Sam (Dancy) enters the picture, he is the perfect confident for Barbara. Ready and willing to do everything he can to help her re-enter society, he only asks for some money, room and board, and the bare necessities. But Sam can't deny he is attracted to Tony and Tony feels this. But Barbara is also lonely, she makes the moves on Sam, who apparently isn't as gay as she thought. This moment leads to an ongoing relationship between mother and son, an ongoing relationship "with benefits".
Julianne Moore seems a natural to play this type of role, the woman of yesterday. She has done this so well before, most notably in "Far From Heaven". As I watched her portray Barbara, sashaying around other men, I really thought about Rita Hayworth who could have played this role just as well. In fact, it would be difficult to tell them apart. From the moment Moore walks onto screen, her hair and dress the fashion of the late Forties, showing bare shoulders, she looks like she walked out of "Gilda" or "The Lady From Shanghai". Also, as soon as Moore appears on screen, I noticed that shoulders were flecked with many freckles. It may seem like a small point. But showing these makes her portrayal of Barbara seem more natural. Hayworth would never have had freckles showing, the studios wanted everyone to look perfect, so they would have covered them. Because Moore shows these, she seems more like an actual woman from this era, despite perfect hair and dress.
As the story progresses, and we see more layers of Barbara's and Tony's lives and mental problems unfold, the characters become more richly detailed and more disturbing. Moore reveals these bits in subtle ways, making the character flamboyantly restrained. She is a woman who lives well, and has the means to do so, but this type of life just seems to come naturally to her. And when this way of life becomes threatened, she becomes distraught, she becomes lonely, and she becomes slightly unhinged. So she looks to her son for affection.
Stephen Dillane plays Brookes and his role is definitely the less showy, but no less important. Brookes is the more grounded of the pair, but he can only put up with so much from Barbara. And as he soon shows, he is only so far above the sexual shenanigans. It is a good performance and an important part of the film.
Eddie Redmayne (he played Matt Damon's son in "The Good Shepherd" and played various people in "Elizabeth I", opposite Helen Mirren, "Elizabeth The Golden Age" opposite Cate Blanchett, and "The Other Boleyn Girl" opposite Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson) plays Tony, the young man who has to deal with his mother and the absence of his father. Tony loves both parents, but his mother is a bit much. Even for him. When they move to Spain, and he becomes attracted to the young man, he seems to sense this is driving his father further away, which is why he agrees to the road trip with his new girlfriend. But he can't deny his true feelings and pursues the young man. When this seems to drive a wedge in the relationship he has with his father, he becomes closer to his mother.
Redmayne is very convincing as Tony, a young man with an unconventional upbringing, who now looks at the world in an unconventional way. As he realizes he is becoming more and more like his mother, desperate for outside contact, he becomes a little more unhinged, desperate to try to break away, but unsure of how to do that. Their relationship progresses to a creepy, but based on the preceding events, believable level which is probably what lead to this film's unrated release.
Hugh Dancy plays Sam, a "walker", a gay man who helps society woman by acting as their escort, or helping them reenter society in some other way. As soon as Sam arrives, he is all about getting down to business. "You could have lunch with her… and then so and so would see you. And before you know it, you're back on the social register." As he enters their household, he tries to remain committed to the job, but he can't deny his attraction to Tony. When Barbara enters his bed, they have sex and fall asleep. Later, when Tony returns, he can't find his mother and realizes where she has gone. So he undresses and gets into bed with them.
The film is unrated and there is a significant amount of nudity and more than one depiction of sex. But most of the sex happens off-screen or when characters are clothed. I suspect the actual sexual acts were depicted in this way to help the film get released at all. Or maybe the subject matter is so shocking that to depict such acts would get the film banned. Even though they are clothed, a scene between Barbara and Tony is shocking, disturbing and difficult to watch.
The film is told in an almost episodic fashion, presenting some key moments in the life of this family, as they move from one place to the other. Each 'episode' depicts an event important to the overall fabric of this tale. We start off in New York in the late forties, than flash forward to Paris in the late 50s and then to Spain in the late 60s. When Tony becomes a young man, as we first see in Spain, the story stays with him and we watch as the family moves to a couple of different locations in Spain, before Barbara and Tony move to London. In each of these segments, we watch as Barbara's obsession with the social register and her family's place in society becomes more and more problematic for Brookes. As Brookes is driven away from them, he becomes more and more dispirited with his son, and this leads Barbara and Tony's relationship to become closer and more deviant. Because the story progresses slowly, it gives us a chance to get used to the new developments and each twist and turn in this story seems more believable because of it.
As it is, "Savage Grace" is an interesting, well-made look at a true life shocking case of people with too much time and money on their hands. When they get bored, their minds and hands wander.
Your eyes won't wander. They will be riveted to the screen due to the performance, the subject matter and the production values. It's a well made, interesting but ultimately difficult film to watch.