Savage Grace

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Savage Grace

Release Date: May 30
Director: Tom Kalin
Writer: Howard A. Rodman (screenplay), Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson (book)
Cinematographer: Juan Miguel Azpiroz
Starring: Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne
Studio/Run Time: IFC Films, 97 mins.

Good parenting proves a luxury in exploitive family drama

In a decade when the dysfunctional family has become its own film genre, Savage Grace presents the disturbing true story of an aristocratic clan torn between expectation, decadence and wealth.

Julianne Moore stars as aspiring socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, a middle-class drama queen who marries into a dynasty founded generations ago by the inventor of commercial plastic. Based on real-life events and the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson, the narrative cherry-picks moments from the family’s histrionic exploits and international ventures.

Stylistically, all of the staples of Augusten Burroughs and Wes Anderson are in full swing: repressed homosexuality, callous parenting and world-weary voiceovers pasted into a cynical montage of character meltdowns. Tragic and thin, the script hits a perpetual note of disaster from the first act to the climax. Barbara and her husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) shuffle through a toxic marriage while sabotaging the mental health of their son, Tony (Eddie Redmayne). The parents’ neurotic shortcomings eventually culminate in abandonment and incestuous co-dependency.

Raw as it is, Savage Grace doesn’t know what to conclude from the mistakes that define its characters. Despite all the rich and vivid drama, there’s no focal point or explanation for why seemingly normal people would resort to such depravity and abuse. This astounding lack of development and reasoning completely neuters the characters’ impact. In defense of director Tom Kalin, it’s not hard to imagine the Baekeland biography in a gripping cinematic translation. A brief examination of the family’s historical trials reveals an unsettling tragedy filled with melodramatic intrigue and character flaws that would provide Freud years of vindicating research. But the script criminally undermines facts integral to this story: Tony, who notoriously harbored a knife obsession, displayed signs of schizophrenia in his early teens. This aspect of the protagonist is completely glossed over but intrinsically linked to the film’s third act. Streamlining events in scripts is nothing new, but when such essential information only receives a line or two of dialogue, it fails to illustrate its players as anything but ambiguous sketches of their flesh-and-blood inspiration.

With dialogue that relies on mindless banter punctuated by periodic outbursts, all of the actors are expert in articulating their various states of conflict. Julianne Moore is especially natural delivering her character’s fuming desperation, as Barbara Baekeland could well be a composite of characters Moore has already mastered in her filmography. From Amber Waves in Boogie Nights to Linda Partridge in Magnolia, the actress could teach classes on how to have a proper emotional breakdown. Likewise, the photography sets an ironic backdrop for this strife by capturing the whitewashed beauty of Cadaques and Paris.

With such adept production, it’s disappointing that the movie fails to effectively form a cohesive whole—at only an hour and a half, I suspect a longer cut exists that does the Baekelands’ neurotic complexity more justice. The competent acting and lush visuals can’t cover for a story that doesn’t comprehend the severity and reasoning of its existence. What we’re left with is a brief series of atrocious parenting decisions that aspire to Greek tragedy but only pass as art-house Jerry Springer. As esoteric as it strives to be, this exploitive soap opera doesn’t have the patience to show its subjects as anything more than upper-class shock value.

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