Savage Grace

As Eddie Redmayne’s performances travel increasingly down the ‘nice vulnerable dotty guy’ route, it’s worth remembering he could do complex and sinister so well in his early days. SAVAGE GRACE (2008) by Tom Kalin was one such instance.

As glossy and disturbing as a painted fingernail scraping down a polished surface, this beautiful and unrelenting film looks at the life of one super-rich American family which became notorious in 1972 when the disturbed son Tony stabbed his mother to death in their London flat. Julianne Moore once more shows how very very good she is at presenting the calm bourgeois face on a simmering emotional turmoil beneath, not to mention how very very authentic she looks in Fifties clothes, as Barbara Daly Baekerland, social-climbing wife of the heir to the Bakelite fortune.

Admirers of Tom Karlin (important figure in the American ‘New Queer Cinema’) have had to wait 15 years since his last feature, Swoon, also based on a scandalous, decadent crime, the Leopold/Loeb murder (also the basis for Hitchcock’s Rope). To begin with it seems worth the wait. A suffocating but perversely delicious atmosphere pervades the start, as Moore’s odd, upper-class speech and languorous ways gradually reveal a soul ill at ease when at its most apparently confident, detached at its most sensual. Stephen Dillane is icily precise as purposeless, cold-hearted Brookes Baekerland, while Eddie Redmayne as their son, perfect casting for Moore’s offspring, maintains an vulnerable but unknowable weirdness. The rich are indeed different. Their vacuous lives and deep betrayals in the hothouse world where there is nothing to do but spend money and seek intimacy wherever you can find it do not stir the emotions – It’s hard to like or even sympathise with this lot, but at first you are fascinated all the same, as father-son, husband-wife relations are non-existent and mother-son relations warp and evolve into something unspeakable.

A disconnectedness which may be intended but ultimately irritates takes the sting away from much of the middle section where we see the family being bored and in the case of Barbara boorish around gorgeous bits of Europe, as the increasingly disturbed Tony, established in a somewhat clichéed manner as gay from early on, tries out an unlikely heterosexual relationship which is stolen from him by his smooth talking father, and moves on to a three in a bed with his mother and her camp ‘escort’ (Hugh Dancy). The doom accrues like a heavy stale perfume over these beautiful people, and finally the mother/son relationship reaches its consummation in a piece of bravura acting by Moore. As always the banal coexists with the tragic. Oedipus may have put his eyes out, but Tony sits on the floor and orders pizza. The rest of his horrific story is spelled out at the end of the film. A sober end to a cold, sometimes infuriating, but sumptuous film.

Written 2008

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