Based on the true story of the 1972 murder of Barbara Daly Baekeland by her son Tony, Savage Grace is a relatively uninspiring film filled with intentionally shocking portrayals of family dysfunction and incest. That it is even watchable comes down solely to the performance of Julianne Moore who makes her rather appalling character live and breathe.
No-one could ever accuse Moore of making easy character choices – whether it is in the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman or the Coen brothers, she seems to seek out challenges, and these roles offset her appearances as Clarice Starling in Hannibal, or as Rebecca in the absolute dross that is Trust the Man. She was brilliant in Children of Men, and now appears as the sexually adventurous desperate housewife to the heir to the Bakelite fortune, Brooks Baekeland. Their son Anthony is growing up in a household with no sense of boundaries, and as such he understands none himself. With time he becomes sexually active, and as his relationship with his mother becomes ever more convoluted, they become estranged from his father. Their isolation makes their relationship more inter-dependent, leading eventually to incest and murder. (It seems the book this film is based on used information from Brooks Baekeland among other sources, but one wonders how the details of the final hours of his former wife’s life could be known by anyone other than their son Tony, who was institutionalised after Barbara’s murder and seemingly isn’t an especially reliable source.)
Whether any of this will appeal to an audience likely to have never heard of the murder remains to be seen, but it is going to be a hard sell. Savage Grace is not an enjoyable watch, nor is it especially successful as a biopic. None of the three main characters is even remotely accessible – in fact, all three have their share of appalling moments – and the story moves at such a slow pace it borders on dull for much of its running time. The events portrayed seem inevitable, and thus any sense of concern or intrigue is lost, and as the characters are so unlikeable there isn’t much concern to start with.
Moore is excellent in the protagonists role, however, oozing class in an otherwise limited cast. She lives inside her character, embodying a fragility and insecurity that leads her to need more of her son than a mother should. Were it not for Moore, Savage Grace may be unbearable.
Set in the European holiday spots of the idle rich, there is visual appeal to Savage Grace, although that hardly makes up for the rather dreary progression of dysfunction the audience is subject to. While Moore is superb, she alone can’t make this worthwhile.Rating: