Talk about counter-programming. While most of the world goes to a love story about robots or a shoot-'em-up about assassins, some more adventurous souls will take to Savage Grace, a Freudian house of horrors based on a true story that rocked American high society. Disturbing in the extreme, Savage Grace gives a guided history tour of a family as dysfunctional as they come.
Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) was the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune. When the film opens in 1946, he's seeing out the last days of a resentful marriage to Barbara (Julianne Moore), complicated by the birth of their son Tony (Eddie Redmayne). As the years pass, Tony narrates in letters his yearnings, frustrations, and confusions, culminating in a familial crash and burn in the 1970s. The unselfish performances of Moore, Redmayne and Dillane tell the story in creepily listless, off-kilter fashion, effectively offset by select moments when the emotional truth isn't merely evident but boils over.
Knowing little about the true story proved an asset for me, but it's not a spoiler to point out that, in the wake of the marital split, mother and son become locked in a mortal embrace. Permanently burned by men, fragile, needy Barbara needs the doting reassurance of Tony (as a lad, Barney Clark of Oliver Twist), who grows up under her smothering wing. When Tony reaches manhood, his love doesn't go away, but his resentment grows. "Taking care of mummy became my inheritance," he says, describing a job that includes cleaning out the wrist wounds of her suicide attempt and yet more transgressive tasks.
Tony drifts through bisexuality on the way to confirmed homosexuality, but his sexual maturity is complicated by the intrusions of his mother and the disapproval of his father (screenwriter Howard A. Rodman—working from the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson—points out the irony of Brooks inflicting anal sex on Barbara). Mother and son broach particularly tricky territory when Barbara hires a bisexual walker (Hugh Dancy) that both find attractive.
The story considers the consequences of the family's inherited success. Tony's longing for paternal approval seems to fall on deaf ears—neither Tony nor Brooks can live up to the "sainted" image of the successful man who built the family fortune. The only alternative is letdown, with the family members travelling in hope of finding happiness (episodes take place in New York, Paris, Cadaqués, and London), furtively pursuing their desires and invariably failing to engage in society (the one frivolous society event in the film is the first scene, a strained outing that sets the tone). Tony quotes Da Vinci as saying, “One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes," a statement to which the film puts the lie.
Though director Tom Kalin (Swoon) shoots the film like a cool breeze, it comes on like a cold wind. Kalin shows a sensitivity to the theatrically tragic elements of the true story—though it's always perilous to tell one that skips across four decades. This is a story that gambles with unrelatable characters, but when it takes its shocking turns, they seem weirdly earned–by the end, the pieces of the narrative make a kind of crazy sense, and the emotional impact we've been not so carefully wishing for arrives.