American director Tom Kalin is a curious missing-in-action case, with 15 years between his first and second features: give him the Terrence Malick Award for Cinematic Absenteeism. Swoon (1992) told the story of 1920s murderers Leopold and Loeb in a style so elegantly artificial it was practically ritualistic. Although ostensibly more mainstream, Kalin's belated follow-up is of a piece with it. Stylised despite its period realism, Savage Grace is set among the moneyed American dolce vita set, from the 1940s to the 1970s, and recounts the notorious true-life case of the Baekeland family, inheritors of the Bakelite fortune. I say "notorious", but I'd never heard of the Baekelands before, so I won't reveal too much about the story, except to say that its outcome couldn't have been more regrettable if Sophocles had written it.
Howard A Rodman's script – based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M L Aronson – kicks off the story in 1940s Manhattan, when protagonist/ narrator Tony Baekeland is a baby, exchanging besotted coos with his glamorous mother Barbara (Julianne Moore). Papa, former explorer Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), is not one for cooing: he's a stiff, terse man, only too aware of being the undermotivated, overleisured grandson of a genius, the inventor of prototype plastic Bakelite. Barbara, married into exorbitant wealth, relishes her role as pampered salonnière, with a wardrobe of frothy peignoirs and a basket of calling cards from assorted princes and grafs. Tony is born into a life of opulence, and of snobbery and mannerism. (Barbara, trilling over the phone to a pet aristo: "Should we say 10.30? Is that too continental?")
He's also born into a world of emotional disturbance. Out dining with her clique, Barbara finishes the evening with a flourish, abandoning Brooks to dash off with a passing stranger. The couple's relationship is a series of revenges and mutual humiliations, culminating in the 1960s when Brooks goes off to live with the then-teenage Tony's girlfriend Blanca (Elena Anaya).
Tony, meanwhile, develops as zealously nurtured hothouse plants tend to. In Paris in the 1950s, played by Barney Clark, he's a precious and precocious adolescent. ("I rather like Boulez, don't you Mummy?") In the 1960s, in the Spanish seaside town of Cadaques, Tony (now played by Eddie Redmayne) is a vacantly wan proto-hippie, passively accepting flirtation from sultry Blanca on one side and a sultrier leather-clad beau on the other.
Meanwhile, Mother gets angrier and flakier. She and Tony end up in a ménage à trois with her dapper gay "walker" (Hugh Dancy); when Tony slides into bed with the two of them, that in itself is less shocking than the trio's eventual chorus of raucous laughter, as if drunk on their loucheness. By the time Barbara and Tony move to London in 1972, the stolid English sofas and dark interiors tell you how airless their life has become.
Swoon made Kalin's name as a torchbearer, along with Todd Haynes, of "New Queer Cinema", a school that championed new styles in depicting sexual and social dissidence. Savage Grace ostensibly belongs in that tradition, resembling a Harold Robbins saga ghosted by Tennessee Williams. Yet it finally seems oddly conservative, warning us that, sexually, anything does not go, not without paying a high price. Indeed, this could almost be a Soviet-era jeremiad against Western wealth, dragging every form of decadence and trauma in its wake.
At the heart of the film is Tony's troubled development, fuelled by a toxic diet of money, resentment and excessive leisure. Savage Grace suggests a rewrite of the old joke: "My mother made me a homosexual – and she used only the very best materials, you know, Dior and De Sade." However, the fact of Tony's schizophrenia is only hinted at, and we never see the extent of his disturbance until the climax, when it comes too much as a surprise to function dramatically.
But the film's real centre is Barbara. Julianne Moore has proved her brilliance at emotional vulnerability, especially in an American 1950s setting – notably in Far from Heaven and The Hours. Here she offers a steelier study in that period, making Barbara a failed actress who makes life her screen for swanky histrionics. It's a magnificent performance, but Kalin clearly wants to emphasise detached surface; consequently Moore can't give us that much depth. And it's slightly beginning to feel as if Moore has exhausted a certain brittle thread in her repertoire.
Moore has an impressively muted foil in Redmayne, whose sullen pout seems to hang ever lower on his quizzical face as the film progresses. But the most intriguing, and in some ways frustrating characterisation is Brooks, whom Stephen Dillane brings to life with curiously panacheful stuffiness.
Arch? Why, Savage Grace is so arch that you could drive a barouche through it.
Its detachment and fragmentation will disappoint if you're expecting either a lucid forensic analysis of the case, or a more emotionally evolving story. Kalin emphasises that his characters are first and foremost appearance, even at moments of high drama: furiously bearding the errant Brooks in Mallorca, Barbara is essentially staging a stormy confrontation scene, her feelings expressed as much by her blood-red dress as by Moore's fiery acting. But along with emotion, Kalin inevitably sacrifices psychological insight. Savage Grace is a classy film rather than a really good one, but it undeniably has its own grace, coolly perverse if not truly savage.