SAVAGE GRACE ** Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne; not rated, probable R (sex, nudity, drugs, profanity)
There's plenty of savagery of an overrefined sort and no grace at all in "Savage Grace," a tale of rot in the upper crust, about the real-life 1972 murder of socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland by her son, Antony.
The movie is set in a social circle where self-indulgence and the flouting of morals are so habitual that, when the incestuous act that precedes the killing finally occurs, you mostly just wonder why it didn't happen sooner.
It's the story of a doomed marriage and a family undone by idleness and great wealth. Barbara (played in the film by Julianne Moore) was married to Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), whose grandfather invented the first plastic, Bakelite. Brooks was a handsome, athletic adventurer who once undertook a search for a lost Incan city, but mainly he seems to have been a man who inherited so much money that normal constraints were irrelevant.
A former model and aspiring actress, Barbara Daly was from a middle-class background, eager to be part of high society, though she never quite fit in. Nevertheless, the couple were charter members of what came to be known as the jet set the film's six episodes are set in the playgrounds of the rich and bored: New York; Paris; Cadaquis, Spain; Mallorca and London.
The birth of Antony (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) in 1946 brings little pleasure to Brooks, who will eventually regard him as a failure, particularly after the boy's homosexuality becomes apparent. On the other hand, mom and son are, from the get-go, way too close. The boy is quickly established as a narcissistic and crafty little creature, so that his father's disdain is understandable, to a degree. Deserved or not, the rejection stings Antony, and after his father withdraws from the family, the younger man pleads with him, by letter, to return.
The story is an unbroken flow of sad or nasty incidents. Antony attempts a relationship with a young Spanish woman, only to have her take up with his father. When Dad flies the coop, Barbara attempts suicide. Antony flaunts his romantic relationship with a drug dealer, Jake. Barbara employs a gay man as a sort of combination gigolo and adviser to help her re-enter society. Antony becomes increasingly detached from reality. The climactic act of incest seems inevitable, and there's nothing coy about how Kalin presents it. (For those who care, some observers believe that the real-life Barbara was trying to "cure" her son's gayness.)
The director doesn't appear interested in the psychology behind all this. He would probably reject almost any explanation as naive. (Kalin does have a taste for disturbing stories: His previous major work was 1992's well-received "Swoon," based on the Leopold and Loeb case.) Whatever Kalin's aim, there's a dramatic emptiness here as the film withholds too much in an attempt to avoid being a conventional morality tale. It's a horror story, all right, but the reason for telling it remains unclear, and it seems like a waste of Kalin's evident talent.
Moore is a gifted enough actress that her Barbara is impressive despite the film's hollowness. Dillane ("John Adams") nicely conveys how Brooks was at least somewhat conflicted about the wanton lifestyle he led. Redmayne ("The Good Shepherd") is at once vacuous, insufferable and pathetic as Antony, but given Kalin's slippery handling of the material, the characterization lacks depth.
"Savage Grace" is not rated but would probably receive an R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, language. Running time: 97 minutes.