Reality TV has raised the bar for shamelessness into the stratosphere. Exhibitionists have debased themselves so thoroughly that a feature film has a hard time competing: It must be much more lurid and/or laden with psychological complexities a TV show won't explore. “Savage Grace” scores on the first count but not on the second.
Director Tom Kalin, who's making his second feature after 1992's “Swoon,” tells the real-life story of the Baekeland family in a subdued whisper, like a servant muttering backstairs about a rich master's failings.
What happened to the family, inheritors of the fortune left by the inventor of Bakelite plastics, is always described as a tragedy. It may have been so in reality; onscreen, it's a tale of ghosts drifting in and out of their own empty lives.
Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), too wealthy to work, tries to sweep boredom away with archaeological digs, safaris and sexual affairs. His socialite wife, Barbara (Julianne Moore), puts down her husband whenever possible and picks up strangers outside nightclubs.
Small wonder that she spends much of her free time overmothering her child, Tony (Eddie Redmayne). He grows up to be miserable, gay (or maybe bisexual) and addicted to drugs rather than his mother's weakness, alcohol. Eventually, they do indeed fall into the nastiness toward which the film has been pointing inexorably.
Writer Howard Rodman, who adapted the book of the same name by Natalie Robins and Steven Aronson, lets us know from the first that disaster is inevitable. We come into the Baekeland saga like Alpine hikers happening upon an avalanche, and we watch the world collapse with a sad, mildly disgusted curiosity.
Part of the film's failure to arouse real horror is the languid direction; not enough seems to be at stake emotionally. Part of the problem is Redmayne, a dull narrator and actor who needs to learn that a perennially bored character needn't bore an audience. (He played the same kind of stultified, ruined son in “The Good Shepherd.”)
Moore works up a frenzy, trying to infuse the film with enough passion for everyone, but she can't carry the load alone. Oddly, Barbara Baekeland doesn't seem to age from 1946 through 1972, hovering always around her early 40s. Did madness keep her young?