The lifestyle of the rich and crazy seems to be a subject close to Tom Kalin’s heart, though a gay subtext is apparently also a requirement. His first film, “Swoon,” was an arty take on the notorious Leopold-Loeb murder case. Now his second, which comes a full fifteen years later, deals with the tragic story of the extremely dysfunctional Baekeland family (heirs to the Bakelite plastics fortune)—fabulously wealthy Brooks (Stephen Dillane), social-climbing wife Barbara (Julianne Moore) and their troubled son Antony (Eddie Redmayne). But while based on fact, “Savage Grace,” like “Swoon,” feels utterly artificial. The décor and costumes are authentic, but there’s barely a moment in the picture that feels genuine in human terms. And the eclectic, intrusive score by Fernando Velazquez adds to the sense of falsity.
The narrative starts up in the mid-forties, with tight-lipped, snobby Brooks and low-born, snotty Barbara enjoying New York high life and a love-hate relationship while baby Antony is left in a nanny’s care. A decade or so later, however, the couple has decamped to Paris, and the boy (Barney Clark) has been transformed, under the doting but rigid control of his mother, into a perfect example of aristocratic class, though Brooks does not seem impressed by the result.
Cut ahead another ten years or so, and Tony (now Redmayne) has become an affected, almost drowsy fellow, still under his mother’s thumb, lounging on a Spanish beach. He attempts an intimate night with local beauty Blanca (Elena Anaya), but is obviously more interested in hirsute Jake (Unax Ugalde). His effort is foiled in any event by the fact that Brooks takes up with Blanca, a tryst that breaks up his marriage.
That leaves Tony and Barbara alone and utterly dependent on one another. Her smothering ways, which go so far as to lead her—in one of the picture’s more disturbing moments—to service the boy sexually, have a disastrous effect on his mental state. So does the arrival of a hireling of Barbara’s, a “walker” named Simon (Hugh Dancy), whose role is to accompany her on social outings. But Tony’s attracted to Simon, too, and soon the three are actually sharing a bed. Add to that Tony’s unrequited longing for a relationship with his father and you get a scenario that can only end badly.
Unfortunately, that’s how it’s executed, too. The behind-the-scenes crew have worked wonders with the sets and costumes (the production designer was Victor Molero, the costume designer Gabriela Salaverri), the locations are gorgeous, and Juanmi Azpiroz’s cinematography gives everything a glossy sheen that Douglas Sirk would have envied. And Kalin achieves an almost painterly effect in his compositions: everything is not only elegantly appointed but sumptuously arranged and shot.
What’s lacking, unfortunately, is any sense of life or humanity. Howard A. Rodman’s script has a literary quality that sounds persistently false, and though Kalin has a sure touch with inanimate objects, he seems to lack rapport with actors, who turn in uniformly affected, overstated performances. Moore is capable of great things, but here her hard, brittle turn is utterly one-note (though it must be said that, as in “Far from Heaven,” she certainly wears those period dresses well). Dillane seems less plastic, if you’ll pardon the pun, but perhaps that’s only because he’s not as omnipresent. And Dancy’s smugness irritates from his first scene.
But the fatal element is Redmayne, who meanders through his part in the apparent belief that changes in wardrobe and hairstyle alone will suffice to flesh out the character. Tony’s supposed to be an enervated, dependent sort of person, of course, but Redmayne’s attitude is so blasé that he seems empty, and his line readings so flat that they barely register any emotion at all. So despite the fact that Tony acts as a sort of narrator throughout the picture—reciting snatches of Tony’s actual letters, among other things—he remains a fuzzy, indistinct figure.
Nor is it even clear what point Kalin wants to make with the film. Certainly it can’t be the old, psychologically discredited belief that a domineering mother will turn a boy gay and his father’s rejection will make him mentally disturbed and violent. But that’s a reading the picture could certainly invite.
So in the end “Savage Grace” is, like the people it portrays, visually striking but opaque, its opulent exterior revealing very little of what’s going on inside. Ultimately it’s a strangely decorous technical exercise, too ostentatiously graceful and emotionally not savage enough.