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June 27, 2008
Sordid lives, lushly show
The beauty of Tom Kalinís latest film may keep the story at a distance
Fans of Tom Kalinís first film Swoon have waited a long time to see what he would offer up next. That directorial debut, perhaps one of the most impressive of his generation of cinematic auteurs, had set up high expectations.
Even though his new film Savage Grace shines in many ways, it disappoints as well.
And itís not that Kalin disappeared completely from the cinematic world between Swoon in 1992 and Savage Grace. He has made many short films, done some writing and produced films like Go Fish and I Shot Andy Warhol in the interim.
Swoon, which put him on the cinematic map, revisited the tumultuous, real-life case of two young gay Jewish men, Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. This black-and-white film inventively and passionately focused on the case and its perpetrators.
Kalinís latest film, also based on real-life characters and incidents, is a lush gorgeous film to look at, much like Swoon, although the newer work is bursting with a bright, vivid color palette to match the colorful, to say the least, lives of its protagonists.
Savage Grace examines the sumptuous and sordid lives of the Baekelands, who, starting in the post-World War II era, began a downfall reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy.
Based on an award-winning book of the same name by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, we are introduced to Barbara Daly, who marries into immense wealth when she bags Brooks Baekeland, heir to the Bakelite plastic fortune. Horribly mismatched for the most part, the coupleís lives are further thrown into chaos with the birth of their only child, Tony. An almost instant Oedipal triangulation begins to emerge as Tony becomes a boy, close to his lonely mother and in conflict with his father who sees the boy as a huge disappointment.
The film is as much a portrayal of the era (1946 to 1972) as it is a recreation of what caused the Baekelands to implode individually and collectively. Kalinís film, although shot entirely in and around Barcelona, Spain, becomes an intriguing and convincing travelogue of the many places to which the Baekelands globetrotted--Paris, New York, Cadaques, Mallorca and London.
The decadent beauty and tantalizing allure of Barbaraís world is wonderfully captured as something she revels in, and which also destroys her soul. The utter beauty of the film sometimes becomes distancing, not allowing audiences to connect with the characters and their predicaments in more meaningful, substantive ways beneath all the slick veneers and glossy surfaces. But that is where Kalin stumbles, and not something to blame on his team.
Kalin is certainly not interested in implicitly judging his characters. This is a good thing, because it would be very easy to present these individuals as laughably ridiculous or pathologically evil. But some of the ways in which the characters are presented--by both Kalin and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman--are difficult to process. Very often we are given such tiny slivers of information or psychological depth that many of the motivations of the characters remain obscure and even unapproachable. This becomes particularly significant if Kalin wants audiences to empathize with his menagerie of fools, especially in some of their more barbaric impulses and actions.
As a result of this emotional and psychological shorthand, when Barbara fully seduces her grown son, and when he kills her shortly thereafter, we are left largely with a ďwho caresĒ attitude as opposed to a real understanding or catharsis.
The actors are uniformly superb and while their performances sometimes add to the distancing described above, neither the script nor the direction help them much in that regard.
Hugh Dancy is wonderful to watch--as always--as the bisexual lothario who makes a play for both Barbara and Tony. Dancy, who also played gay in last yearís Evening, has been turning in performance after performance that make us look forward to his next work.
Stephen Dillane as the distant and disappointed patriarch, who eventually steals his sonís girlfriend away from him, turns in a still yet effective performance. Dillaneís nuanced work allows us to see both why Barbara would be deeply lonely with him around and why he would be motivated by her volatility to seek solace elsewhere.
Eddie Redmayne, relatively new to feature films, has a porcelain beauty and poise that is stunningly seductive in moments and alienating at others. His is a hard role--he is often the weak character whether in relation to his mother, father or several lovers, and yet he cannot come across simply as a human toy. Redmayne is strong overall, and once again the script and direction stifle our ability to really connect with his plight and his eventual destruction.
The ever radiant and brilliant Julianne Moore has never looked better. Hers is a performance that runs the gamut of emotions from deafening silence to explosive theatrics and she makes each moment ring as true as the script allows her to. Sometimes, because the writing doesnít allow us greater insight into the characters and their story, some of the acting, including Mooreís, comes across as more mannered than from the soul.
Still, Savage Grace is worth watching, despite its shortcomings. It tells a story in terms of human emotions and hubris that is both so contemporary and ancient all at once. And what we are forced to remember is that human truth is far stranger than any fictions possible.