One of the more controversial films at Sundance, Savage Grace dramatizes the real-life story of Barbara and Tony Baekeland, a bizarrely intertwined high-society mother and son whose Oedipal relationship ended in tragedy. Screenwriter Howard A. Rodman, who adapted the script from the book by Natalie Robins and Stephen M.L. Aronson, plucks five key periods in Barbara and Tony's lives from the wealth of source material to sketch out the broad strokes of the path that led to Tony stabbing his mother to death with a kitchen knife in their London penthouse in 1972.
Barbara married above her class to Brooks Baekeland, heir to a sizeable family fortune generated by his grandfather, who invented Bakelite plastic, one of the first artificial manufacturing materials, and a consumer product whose possibilities made it both far-reaching and wildly lucrative. The Baekeland's wealth allowed them to move in high society and to live around the globe. The film focuses on Barbara (Julianne Moore), who was known in their social circle for her outbursts of temper, bouts of depression, and risque sexual encounters. Barbara's relationship with her son Tony (Eddie Redmayne) was tumultuous and crossed boundaries, ultimately resulting in Barbara seducing her son into an sexual relationship, which ultimately led to Tony's breakdown and murder of his mother.
Helmer Tom Kalin, whose prior film Swoon re-told the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, seems fascinated by exploring these unusual true-crime type stories, and Savage Grace, while frequently difficult to watch because of the nature of the storyline, is both intense and fascinating to watch. Moore takes on a challenging role in Barbara, capturing both Barbara's charm and chaotic nature. Redmayne, a talented up-and-coming young actor, proves he can hold his own against Moore's considerable talent, evolving Tony through his increasing mental instability and playing against Barbara's mother-without-proper-boundaries quite effectively.
The storyline is a little cringeworthy -- incest, after all, is not something one discusses in polite society -- but that's part of what makes the story of Barbara and Tony interesting. After all, as Tolstoy notes at the beginning of Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The classical tragedy that surrounds Barbara and Tony, the lack of proper boundaries between mother and son, the dysfunctional relationships between Brooks and Barbara, who fought frequently and grated against each other, and Brooks' disapproval and rejection of his son , all work together to lead to the climactic ending of Barbara's life at the hands of her son, who after the murder said in a letter to his grandmother that he still loved his mother very much and missed her tremendously.
The film, which was shot on location in Spain, is lovely to look at; the color palette sets a sense of time and place, and brings to life on-screen the world in which the Baekelands lived, moved and ultimately died. The film's intensity and subject matter may be a bit too much for some audiences, especially in America, where issues of sex and sexuality, particularly those that cross the boundaries of normalcy, are still very taboo. Still, standout performances by Moore and Redmayne mean that Savage Grace may fnd an audience in arthouse and specialty cinemas, and fans of both true-crime and of Kalin's particular style of storytelling will find the film compelling to watch.