Savage Grace

Sex, murder, incest, suicide and money: The sordid story of Barbara Baekeland, the Boston-born socialite who married into the Bakelite plastics fortune, and her deeply disturbed son Tony, who murdered his mother in their London townhouse, has everything one could ask of a true-crime expose. Director Todd Kalin, who helped kick start the New Queer Cinema...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Sex, murder, incest, suicide and money: The sordid story of Barbara Baekeland, the Boston-born socialite who married into the Bakelite plastics fortune, and her deeply disturbed son Tony, who murdered his mother in their London townhouse, has everything one could ask of a true-crime expose. Director Todd Kalin, who helped kick start the New Queer Cinema with SWOON, a baroque adaption of the Leopold and Loeb murder case, seemed the perfect person to bring the Baekeland saga to the screen, and Julianne Moore the perfect person to play the demented and doomed Barbara. So what went wrong?

New York City, 1946. Barbara Baekeland (Moore) and husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane), a dashing gentleman of leisure with deep pockets and no discernable career, prepare for an evening out at the Stork Club. The tensions are obvious. Brooks, whose indifference toward baby Tony borders on hostility, resents his wife's tireless socializing, while Barbara, carefully tutored by her middle-class mother (Anne Reid) to "follow the money," is an obvious social climber who delights in piquing her husband's jealousy.

Paris, 1959. Barbara, Brooks and 12-year-old Tony (Barney Clark) are living the life of moneyed itinerants and doing what they "love," i.e. nothing. Barbara dotes on Tony while Brooks, who can't escape the long shadow cast by his illustrious inventor grandfather tells people he's a writer. Tony sleeps with a boy from school and is forced by his unstable mother to read Sade's Justine aloud to appalled guests. Boundaries don't exist.

Spain, 1967. Tony (Eddie Redmayne), now a fragile young man, meets beautiful Blanca (Elena Anaya) in the fancy-free Costa Brava playground of Cadaques. He's already sleeping with a local bad boy Black Jake (Unax Ugalde) but attempts a sexual relationship with Blanca, either to prove something to his contemptuous father or make his mother jealous. The relationship doesn't last.

Mallorca, 1968. Brooks has left an increasingly deranged Barbara for Blanca, a breach of familial trust that doesn't bother Tony as much as it does Barbara. To help regain her balance, Barbara turns to Sam (Hugh Dancy), an art dealer friend who sleeps with Barbara, then Tony, then both of them together. Mother and son become lovers and the seeds of an uncommonly tawdry tragedy are sown.

The final two acts of Howard A. Rodman's six-part screenplay follow Tony and Barbara back to Paris, then to London where the circumstances reaches the height of Greek tragedy. Rodman and Kalin's approach to the source material -- Natalie Robins and Steven A.L. Aronson's sprawling, multigenerational oral history Savage Grace -- is a wise one: From over 500 pages of eyewitness testimony, they chose six moments from Barbara and Tony's life together that best trace the arc of their relationship. But they've also drained each scenario of the potential drama, perhaps an over-cautious attempt to skirt the unavoidable -- but wholly necessary -- histrionics. Moore is fine as Barbara but Kalin, who found so much to say about the destructiveness of negative attitudes towards homosexuality in SWOON, disappoints. He completely glosses over Tony's sexuality and Barbara's bizarre attempt to "cure" him by taking him to bed, and this silence on the subject is baffling.

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  • Released: 2008
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Sex, murder, incest, suicide and money: The sordid story of Barbara Baekeland, the Boston-born socialite who married into the Bakelite plastics fortune, and her deeply disturbed son Tony, who murdered his mother in their London townhouse, has everything on… (more)

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