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Originally published Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Moore brings "Grace" to a tragic mother-son story

In Natalie Robins' and Steven M. L. Aronson's book "Savage Grace," which retells a notorious 1972 crime in an oral-history format, there's...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Savage Grace," with Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Hugh Dancy. Directed by Tom Kalin, from a screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson. 97 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains nudity and sexuality). Harvard Exit.

In Natalie Robins' and Steven M.L. Aronson's book "Savage Grace," which retells a notorious 1972 crime in an oral-history format, there's a telling photograph of a young mother and child. The mother, socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, is powdered and pale, with dark lipstick and elegantly arranged '40s hair, and she gazes at her baby with quiet rapture. It's an intriguing photograph for two reasons. First, the two people in this peaceful picture, years later, would be entwined in an intricate and (gossip had it) depraved relationship that ended in brutal violence. Second, the woman in the photograph looks uncannily like the actress Julianne Moore, so much so that it could easily be a publicity photo for the movie.

And a very strange movie it is, too, despite marvelous work by Moore as her look-alike. Barbara Baekeland wasn't to the manor born, but was a would-be actress who married into the Bakelite plastics fortune. Lonely in her unhappy, globe-trotting marriage, she became increasingly close to her only child. In the book, gossipy friends describe the mother/son relationship as unnatural; the movie, with some shockingly explicit scenes, depicts it as such. It's a terribly sad story, right down to the final title cards on the screen; no one is left to tell what really happened.

Director Tom Kalin ("Swoon"), working from a screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, turns the story into a languorous mood piece, so slow and sultry it seems not entirely there at all. The characters of Barbara, her husband, Brooks (Stephen Dillane), and teenage/adult Tony (Eddie Redmayne, his hair petulantly tousled) speak so archly you practically see the quotation marks trailing behind them as they stroll through various chic settings, smoking and preening. Though the film looks elegant, with deceptively simple interiors creating an impression of great wealth, it feels remote. We're impressed by the work the actors are doing, yet the characters don't hold our interest.

You can see, though, why Moore was drawn to the role, physical resemblance aside. Her character seems defined by the idea of having almost been an actress (the real Barbara spent a bit of time in Hollywood doing screen tests before her marriage), and Moore lets us see that Barbara is always putting on a bit of a show, keeping her real self mostly hidden. She walks in careful, brittle steps, as if worried about what she's stepping in, and her laughs all seem carefully planned. It's an intricate, layered performance; a touch of soul in a too-often soulless movie.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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