Based on Natalie Robins' non-fiction book, Savage Grace tells the tragic story of Barbara Baekeland, a middle-class woman who married into the Bakelite plastics fortune, but allowed her insecurities to poison her familial relationships and lead to murder. There's no better actress to play her than Julianne Moore, whose work in Far From Heaven, Safe, and The Hours reveals a talent for suffocated housewives, especially of the upper-crust Eisenhower-era variety. Her exceptionally nuanced performance brings a measure of compassion to a monstrous woman, revealing her heartbreaks and contradictions, all tied to a deep vulnerability that goes hand-in-glove with her pathological behavior. Savage Grace should have the force of Greek tragedy, but Kalin's chamber drama feels curiously stifling and flat, and Moore's volatile turn isn't enough to quicken its pulse.
Draped in heavy period trappings, the film opens in late-'40s Manhattan, where Barbara and her distant husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) have just welcomed their boy Tony (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) into high society. Stung by her husband's cold indifference, Barbara tries to play the happy homemaker and social director, but she has trouble fitting in, and her failures often manifest in embarrassing public outbursts. As time goes on, she clings desperately to her son, and their intimate, dysfunctional connection wreaks havoc on his development. Once the action shifts to Spain, Tony has grown disaffected and sexually confused, drawn into his mother's web as his father cavorts openly with pretty young gold-digger Elena Anaya.
Rather than condense Robins' sprawling book, Kalin (Swoon) and screenwriter Howard Rodman make the seemingly wise decision to chop the chronology into a series of pertinent vignettes. Trouble is, Kalin's direction is so arch and diffuse that the films borders on incoherent at times, lurching from one point in time to the next without much emotional continuity. It also doesn't help that Redmayne and Dillane are nowhere near Moore's equals, both leaning too hard on effete mannerisms while seeming undernourished and vacant by comparison. Then again, maybe that's the intent: When in the presence of a woman like Barbara Baekeland—and an actress like Moore—lesser souls are doomed to wither.