It is giving nothing away to reveal the eventual murder of the mother at the hands of her son in Tom Kalin’s excellent and utterly unsettling second feature Savage Grace since the film is based on a sensational real-life incident that shocked American society in 1972. A spellbinding tale of luxury, incest, madness and matricide, the film recounts the glittering rise and tragic fall of the aspiring American socialite Barbara Daly (a wonderfully versatile Julianne Moore), who married into the incredibly wealthy Baekeland family, and her unhinged relationship with her son Tony (Eddy Redmayne).
Adapted from the non-fiction book by Natalie Robins and Steven ML Aronson, and converted for the cinema by writer Howard A. Rodman and Kalin’s deft directorial hand, Savage Grace truly hits you like a stab in the heart. It’s a magnificent, superbly designed and consistently perplexing riddle, and a triumph for Moore and Redmayne, who bring deep reserves of feeling and grit to the film’s fabulously lush visuals.
Told in six episodes spread between 1946 and 1972, the film follows the decadent, but emotionally frail life of the Baekelands as they move from New York to Paris, and on to Spain in the 60s, where Brooks (Stephen Dillane) decides to put an end to his unhappy alliance to Barbara and leaves her for a much younger Spanish woman. After a glorious scene in which she treats her decamping husband to a ferocious blaze of fury, Barbara desperately struggles with selfish frustrations while her affection for Tony becomes increasingly suffocating. By the time mother and son move on to London, where the horrific climax takes place, Tony seems helpless to control his deeply damaged personality.
Savage Grace is wonderfully sly, intelligent and classily executed, but it undoubtedly makes for uneasy viewing. Deliberately sketchy and un-melodramatic, the episodic storytelling is linked through Tony’s insightful narration of the events. The tone shifts arbitrarily from scene to scene, making the script feel oddly unreal, though never less affecting. Kalin’s decision to strip the story back to key moments and emotions is a sound one, and it enables him to create and maintain a mood of intense, simmering tension and temperamental unpredictability, which ultimately erupts into the devastatingly powerful showdown.
Perhaps the film suffers from its provocative style and slick visuals, which leave the audience with a subliminal demand for some sort of emotional key in order to be able to cope with such extraordinary, inscrutable characters. That said, it is essentially up to Moore in the challenging role of Barbara to carry the film. While she never ages on screen throughout the 26 years covered – which makes the film feel even more like a romanticised memory in Tony’s disturbed mind – the colour and style of Barbara’s outfits are carefully chosen to reveal her inner moods: the lilac dress in the 60s, or the red Chanel suit at the end. Even so, Moore still finds unexpected shades in Barbara’s palette, not least an accumulating sense of emotional and physical exhaustion that remains with the audience after the credits roll.
Read our interview with director Tom Kalin in the summer print issue of Electric Sheep. Also in that issue, a jazz and cinema specially-themed section to coincide with the re-release of Charles Burnett’s heart-rending gem Killer of Sheep, with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on where to buy the magazine and how to subscribe, please contact amanda [at] wallflowerpress.co.uk.