Family Affair

sarris savage grace 2h 0 Family AffairSavage Grace
Running Time 97 minutes
Written by Howard A. Rodman
Directed by Tom Kalin
Starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne

Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace, from a screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on the book Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, fails to explain why its characters, supposedly drawn from real life, behave in the neurotic and psychotic manner shown on the screen. Perhaps there is no adequate explanation for the psychic disasters that befall the Baekeland family. I must say, however, that I received much more insight into the family’s problems from the copious production notes than I did from the film itself. About the only impression I retained from a single viewing of the movie was that of Julianne Moore’s Barbara Baekeland in eternally red dresses, initially vivacious and flirtatious, but perpetually angry underneath, mostly at her cold, upper-crust husband, Stephen Dillane’s Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune. Caught in the middle of this messed-up marriage is the troubled son, Eddie Redmayne’s Anthony Baekeland, or “Tony” as he was known to his various sexual partners, male, female and, occasionally, his own mother. The time span of the film runs from 1946 to 1972, and is organized into six increasingly unpleasant acts over an oddly foreshortened 97 minutes, a rare instance of less seeming to last much longer.

When asked in an interview what initially attracted him to the project, Mr. Kalin, the director, answered: “Christine Vachon gave me a copy of the book, Savage Grace, by Natalie Robins and M. L. Aronson to read many years ago. I was riveted by the sensational truth at the core of the Baekeland story, but even more by the echoes of classical tragedy. The sad beauty of the material drew me to it. But the film’s terrible climax, Barbara’s death, is only part of her story. The originality of her uniquely American character (self-made woman of the 1940s with a born gambler’s instinct) and her glittering rise and devastating fall contained the elements of what I believed would be an amazing drama.”

Mr. Kalin has received many festival honors around the world for his many offbeat projects since he made his 1992 feature-film debut with Swoon, on the Leopold-Loeb thrill-killing ’20s sensation, with more emphasis than previous treatments on the widespread homophobia at work in the society at large. I suspect that Mr. Kalin and his equally honored screenwriter, Mr. Rodman, assumed a widespread familiarity with their subject that simply did not exist, at least within my own cultural purview.

Mr. Kalin’s own recollection of his partnership with Mr. Rodman on the project is particularly revealing: “I had an amazing collaboration with the writer of the film, Howard Rodman. We both knew the book was too sprawling in its scope for a simple adaptation (Savage Grace consists primarily of first-person accounts of witnesses and participants in the Baekeland saga, spanning nearly a century.) Howard and I began by separately identifying what we considered the five key moments of Barbara’s story. When we compared the results, most of them were the same.”

The problem the creative team never solved was the lack of dramatic construction in the narrative to indicate where the actual turning points occurred over the years. Most of the scenes are oppressively intimate, without any adequate ambience to indicate any social consequences for the erratic behavior of the three major characters. As a comparatively uninformed viewer, I found myself relatively detached from the gruesome climax of the film, and the film’s even more gruesome post-film printed accounts of further disasters in this pathologically afflicted family.

Call me old-fashioned if you wish, but I will continue to expect and even demand more dramatic coherence in my narrative entertainment. It is too easy to avoid banality by depriving the audience of enough information to understand the inner lives of the characters. As it stands, Savage Grace is a film strictly for avant-garde festivals, at which even minimal exposition is at a premium.