Fifteen years after his eye-catching debut Swoon, Tom Kalin returns with a second feature that also addresses a story of true-life transgression and its lethal consequences. The inspiration this time is the rise and demise of 1940s socialite Barbara Daly and the increasingly unhinged relationship with her son Tony.
Told with a spare style and a tart wit, it records sprawling events with a claustrophobic sense of intimacy. The incestuous relationship at the heart of the film may prove unappealing to some viewers but the star attraction of Julianne Moore should help elevate the profile of the film and ensure respectable returns from a specialist arthouse release.
Swoon revealed Kalin's eye for telling detail and ability to make a virtue of a low-budget by transforming financial restraint into an aesthetic choice. Told in six scenes that span 20 years, Savage Grace shows a similar resourcefulness. This is a film in which every costume choice says something about a character and the narrative is as lean and compressed as possible without undermining the overall impact.
The first of the six scenes takes place in the New York of 1946 where Barbara Daly (Moore) is a beguiling star in the social firmament and a mother devoted to her new baby boy. Moore's performance deftly signals that all is not well. The gaiety is too forced, the laughter too loud and the mood too fragile for the woman to be entirely well. Her charm and spontaneity allow everyone simply to look the other way.
In subsequent scenes in the Paris of 1959 and Spain of 1968, we witness the end of Barbara's marriage to dashing Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane) and an affection for Tony (Eddie Redmayne) that grows increasingly suffocating and unhealthy for both of them.
Savage Grace has the potential for Mommie Dearest melodrama that Kalin resists by stripping the story back to key moments and essential emotions. The approach is inevitably sketchy and could frustrate those with expectations of something grander in scope. The focus on performance and setting is still highly effective in the way it reveals the decline of a family where privilege and wealth allow for the erasure of all boundaries and the loss of any sense of a structured or normal life.
Cineastes may see parallels in Orson Welles adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons or Visconti's version of The Leopard. Savage Grace doesn't have that level of ambition but it is dark, uneasy little tale with notable performances from Eddie Redmayne as the sulky, deeply damaged Tony; and Moore, who has her best role in years as a desperate woman whose notions of love became corrupted by her bitter disappointments with life.
Peter M Graham II
Howard A Rodman
Howard A Rodman based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven ML Aronson