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There’s a seemingly mild-mannered monster at the heart of Savage Grace, too, but the story of his evolution and terrible final acts are true. Based on a book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson, Tom Kalin’s film profiles Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite fortune, his wife, Barbara, and their son, Tony, from 1946 to 1972. The movie opens like a grim fairy tale, with Barbara (Julianne Moore), her gorgeous, flowing ice-blue dress stark against the dark wood of their home, cradling her newborn. An adult Tony (Eddie Redmayne) provides narration: “I was eating a tomato at tea time a few weeks ago, and I suddenly realized that Mummy is not dead at all,” he says. “Just very, very mysterious.”
At once, you’re confused and hypnotized, not unlike what the boy—adored by his mother, tolerated by his father (Stephen Dillane)—would experience most of his life. As the film globetrots, from New York to Paris to Cadaqués to Mallorca, and skips through stages of Tony’s adolescence and young adulthood, the milieus are breathtaking: The Baekelands were no strangers to the finer things, reflected in their elegant digs and Barbara’s colorful couture, nor to endless leisure. But it’s the latter that got the family into trouble, and what begins as a feast for your eyes turns into a twist of your gut as you witness increasingly ugly characters behave in abominable ways.
It’s easier to appreciate the craftsmanship of Savage Grace than enjoy it as entertainment. The Baekeland story culminates in incest and murder; along the way, there are plenty of other sorts of debauchery, betrayal, and smarm, while its characters remain steadfastly unlikable and unsympathetic. There is, however, a dreaminess here, courtesy mostly of Tony’s odd, sometimes poetic voice-over. And Moore is brilliant in the kind of role she’s long been typecast in: beautiful, charming, cultured wife, always putting on lipstick and a smile to continue the illusion of a perfect life even when it’s turned sour. The cracks Moore slips into Barbara’s façade are stealthy; her inevitable breakdown is tortured. Yet by the time Barbara ends up in bed with yet another stranger or slips herself onto an adult Tony’s lap, you’ll have had quite enough of everyone’s random acts of sordidness and dear old Mummy herself.