Savage Grace

© 2008 Ray Wong


Based on the true crime story and the bestselling book of the same title, Savage Grace chronicles the Baekeland family in a series of events that led to the 1972 murder.

p1Living poshly on his family fortune, Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) and his wife Barbara (Julianne Moore) seem to have everything they desire. Soon after the birth of their son, Tony (Eddie Redmayne), the porcelain surface of their relationship begins to crack. Barbara, a former actress, is more interested in aristocratic lifestyle than being a wife. Brooks, on the other hand, just wants to live quietly as an adventurer. He sees his life as a trap, his marriage a sham, and his son a failure.

p2As Brooks becomes more detached from his family, Tony grows up being extremely close to his mother. Confused about his sexuality, Tony hooks up with best friend Black Jake (Unax Uglade) and Blanca (Elena Anaya), Tony's first and only girlfriend. Then Brooks leaves Barbara for Blanca. Tony vows to take care of his heartbroken mother. Still hoping for his father's love and approval, Tony is caught between his unhealthy devotion to his mother and her manipulation. When Sam (Hugh Dancy), a gay "walker," enters their lives, Tony and Barbara's relationship takes on an unexpected turn that eventually leads to a tragic end.

p3Julianne Moore (Next) has been inconsistent lately in her projects. In Savage Grace, however, she turns in a fearless performance. Period roles usually fit her well, and here, Barbara Baekeland is such as deeply flawed, pathologically unhappy character and Moore did a fine job bring her to life. In certain scenes, she fills the screen with such raw emotions that even as we want to look away, we find our eyes glued to it. She deserves an Oscar nomination just for taking on such a controversial role.

p4Stephen Dillane (Nine Lives) plays the conflicted, taciturn Brooks solidly. His role is stoic and he disappears for much of the second half of the film, but he is a worthy counterpart to Moore's Barbara. Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shepherd) is good as Tony, an awkward teenager and disturbed young man. He shows true affection for Barbara, as well vulnerability and detachment that make his eventual downturn more heartbreaking to witness.

p5The supporting cast is very good. Elena Anaya (Van Helsing) is charming and sincere as Blanca. She seems to be the only honest, sane character (despite the fact that she hooks up with a married man, not to mention her "boyfriend's" father). Abel Folk (The Deal) and Belen Rueda (8 citas) are excellent as the Baekeland's long-time friends Carlos and Pilar Duran. Unax Ugalde (Love in the Time of Cholera) is charismatic and sexy as Black Jake, Tony's best friend and lover. And Hugh Dancy (The Jane Austen Book Club) is debonaire, if a bit flat, as Sam.

p6Written by Howard Rodman (August), the story is adapted from Natalie Robins' bestselling true crime nonfiction. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Rodman at a screening, and he said while he took some liberty at describing certain details and events (including changing the names of a few characters), he stayed true to the actual events. For example, Barbara Baekeland did go home with the first person she saw outside the restaurant, and the incestuous relationship did happen between Barbara and Tony. He admitted it wasn't easy to adapt the book, given the controversial and disturbing nature of the story. 

p7I give kudos to Rodman for attempting to tell the story in an episodic way. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to discern the true motivations of the characters. Rodman doesn't explain everything, which I prefer and appreciate. Still, certain events do not come across as entirely authentic or logical as we're not given an insight into the characters' emotions and thoughts.

p8Tom Kalin (Swoon) has a deft hand and eye for the production. The languorous pace suits the period piece quite well. It's never boring. Even as the episodic storytelling seems disjointed at times, it's always interesting, with vivid characterization and sharp dialogue. Kalin also tackles the disturbing and uncomfortable subject matters, such as incest, sexuality, parental abuse, and the eventual murder, without judgment. He doesn't shy away either. For example, in an extended scene revealing the true nature of Barbara and Tony's relationship, Kalin doesn't cut away. There were audible gasps in the audience, and then there was silence as we found ourselves mesmerized by what we saw on screen. Even so, Kalin doesn't sensationalize, nor does he do it just to titillate. There's a matter-of-fact quality to Kalin's direction that makes the story so riveting, given that it's based on truth.

Savage Grace is not your typical Hollywood movie. It's definitely for mature audiences only. It's slow. It's character-driven. It is disturbing. It is heartbreaking. It's worth a look as the filmmakers have handled it with such care and grace.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Elena Anaya, Abel Folk, Belen Rueda, Unax Ugalde, Hugh Dancy
Director: Tom Kalin
Writers: Howard A. Rodman (based on Natalie Robins' book)
Distributor: IFC First Take
MPAA Rating: R for graphic content, nudity, sexuality, and disturbing adult material
Running Time: 97 Minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 9
Music/Sound– 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 7.8 out of 10

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