"Savage Grace" is a difficult movie and I am not just on about the disturbing true story of the relationship between Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Tony which resulted in murder. Nope I am also on about style because whilst director Tom Kalin crafts a luscious movie of sun drenched European locales he also detaches the audience from the drama, not making us part of what happens but an observer. It makes it a movie which despite being fascinatingly torrid also one which is hard to get into despite the fact it is easy to comprehend how this damaged situation came to be. And as such "Savage Grace" is not a movie for everyone because it is not some smooth, fast paced dramatization but one which lingers, almost seeming to go nowhere at times.
Having married Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane - The Greatest Game Ever Played), heir to the Bakelite fortune, former actress Barbara Daly Baekeland (Julianne Moore - Next) loves the social aspect of her life, enjoying the attention of others which her husband rarely shows her. She also has to deal with his infidelity which over the years as their son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) grows up leads to Brooks not only leaving them but Barbara struggling to cope. It forces Tony to take on the role of his father, having to be there for his mother as Brooks should have been and this leads to Barbara's over reliance on him to the point of turning her sexual advances towards her own son.
In many ways "Savage Grace" is a study of a damaged family starting with Barbara and Brooks, she is starved of his love that she goes to extremes to get attention, in turn winding him up by her extreme partying. At a dinner where she decides to leave with someone else it quickly establishes that this is a woman who craves attention but also punishes Brooks for not being open with his affection. And so over time as Tony grows up we watch as things become increasingly unstable as Barbara becomes increasingly fragile, always on the edge of snapping and beginning to rely on Tony as a child as her crutch for when Brooks isn't about.
What this means is that "Savage Grace" becomes a slow build up to what happened on November 17th 1972, establishing how things got to the point that they did. As such we continue to watch as Tony becomes a teen finding himself becoming Barbara's support when Brooks leaves in what in itself is quite a tawdry way. And we continue to watch as the closeness between mother and son becomes blurred in what is quite surprising ways. I'm not going to go into detail as to what these ways are because much of how this movie works is how it makes you feel when you witness certain things.
The trouble for me is that whilst director Tom Kalin has done a wonderful job of crafting a movie around a disturbing story and really captured the sun drenched European locales where much of the movie takes place he also distances the viewer from what happens. Now maybe this is right, maybe if he had made us part of this disturbing relationship it would have become too much, too tawdry but it also has the negative of leaving us cold to some of what happens. It means that whilst we get to understand Barbara's situation, her need for attention it also leaves us unsure of certain things, most notably for me what was the final thing which lead to those final scenes. Maybe that's just me, maybe I missed something but the detachment from the soul of the story makes it a movie which at times is hard to get into.
Now considering the disturbing nature of the story it must have been a hard movie for the actors involved and in a way that shows through their performances. In the early scenes where Julianne Moore as Barbara is the flirtatious attention seeker her performance feels alive but during the later part as Barbara becomes reliant on Tony it feels restrained and cold. It is the same with Eddie Redmayne who plays Tony because in his early scenes as he is finding his way in a homosexual relationship there is life to his performance, making Tony this rather strange young man. But then when the story moves to Tony becoming the main support for Barbara the performance becomes to cold, too restrained almost to the point of being an enigma.
What this all boils down to is that "Saving Grace" is not only a movie which deals with a difficult true story but it is also a difficult movie which struggles to keep your attention. Having said that I get a sense that this troubled true story was too much for a movie because of its tawdry nature making it an impossible task because getting too close would have made it a lurid movie but by being detached makes it awkward.