Savage Grace, 15

The lurid true-life tale of the Baekeland family, inheritors of the Bakelite fortune, charts the troubles that wealth and boredom can bring in their wake. Not one for those who like a happy ending

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links