based on the book by by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson
2007 • 97 minutes • IFC Films
Why does this movie exist?
I mean, there are two very compelling reasons for Savage Grace to exist—the lives of Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Anthony absolutely brim with scandal and that prelude to a threesome scene with Julianne Moore, Hugh Dancy, and Eddie Redmayne that you know from tumblr—but these are reasons for its genesis, not justification for its rather lackluster existence. If you are going to make a film about the Baekeland murder, a story rich with psychological drama, intrigue, and, yes, incest, why would you ever make it so… bloodless?
For those of you unfamiliar with the Baekeland murder, as I was a few days ago, let me bring you up to speed. Barbara Daly Baekeland, a glamorous New York socialite turned idle rich wife, was murdered by her son Anthony in London in 1972. Their relationship had always been tempestuous, from Barbara’s insanely high expectations to their struggles with mental illness without any real support (Anthony, in particular, was diagnosed as schizophrenic but his father refused to pay for his medical care) to Barbara being so hellbent on curing Anthony’s homosexuality that she allegedly had sex with him. Wealth, exotic locales, sexual taboos, murder, and midcentury clothing: it’s a wonder that the Baekelands didn’t make it to the silver screen before 2007. (The Daily Mail has a lurid and therefore typically Daily Mail rundown of the whole affair, if you are so inclined.)
It’s a very tragic story, especially from Anthony’s point of view as a neglected child suffering with mental illness and his mother’s warped homophobia. It doesn’t, of course, excuse his behavior—he went on to attempt to murder his grandmother, fail, and commit suicide in jail—but it seems like the obvious hook to hang a narrative adaptation of this story on. Savage Grace even begins with his birth.
But there’s something curiously hesitant about this film, as if screenwriter Howard A. Rodman, tasked with adapting the largely celebrated book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson, balked at digging into the blood of guts of this terrible history. We must also lay some blame at director Tom Kalin’s feet, of course, and perhaps it’s just all in the editing, but the script truly feels like the weakest link. I don’t exactly blame Rodman for trying to be respectful of the dead by not sensationalizing their lives. But there’s a certain point where it feels disrespectful not to at least try to grapple with these people as the complex humans they were. People are people even while they’re doing the most outrageous things—they’re often doing those most outrageous things at their most human. Instead of recognizing that an audience might be drawn to a film about the Baekeland affair in order to rubberneck at the idle rich and challenging such an audience’s preconceptions, Rodman just tries to make it as subtle and small as possible.
Which, if you read anything about the real Barbara Daly Baekeland, seems incongruous. After Samuel Adams Green, an art curator played by Hugh Dancy in this film for all of ten minutes, broke up with her, Barbara walked through Central Park in nothing by a fur coat in the snow to try and woo him back. (This is not depicted in the film. Neither is Barbara’s furious car trip to Switzerland to “save” her son from a male lover of his.) While Savage Grace attempts to capture the dizzying, maddening color of Barbara’s personality, it barely does so. Her outbursts—such as picking up a taxi driver for sex after catching her husband having an affair and then bursting into tears—seem rather gentle. Even when we see that Barbara has attempted suicide over her husband’s betrayal, the film seems largely uninterested into wondering why. And Tony suffers the most from the far too subtle treatment: he comes across as an unhappy drifter at most, instead of a young man suffering from untreated mental illness trapped in a toxic relationship with his mother. The film doesn’t even try to build up or even show the physical threat Tony poses to his mother, despite their constant fights in real life, his various attempts to harm her, and a failed murder attempt a few months prior to his successful one. He just… stabs her one day.
I just find so odd that someone would, when handed such a story on practically a silver platter, try to elide some of its more complex moments.
Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, happily, rise above this. Moore, practically luminescent with brittle rage, imbues Barbara with a sharp, cruel grace and a vulnerability that reminds me quite a lot of her character in A Single Man. Redmayne, looking quite coltish and rawboned, makes Tony dreamy and a little unsettling; his slight American drone narrates parts of the film. Their chemistry is so comfortable that I really wish they had more to work with than what they’re given here. Hopefully, they’ll collaborate again in the future on a meatier project. I also very much enjoyed Belén Rueda as Pilar Durán, a small but wonderful role.
I rented this DVD from the public library.