There was a time when legitimate poets could be famous. In 1951, Elizabeth Bishop’s literary accolades made her something of a celebrity, but she was not of a mind to assume the role of public intellectual, a la Frost. Instead, she sought solace in travel, getting far more than she bargained for. Her Brazilian years are chronicled in Bruno Barreto’s Reaching for the Moon (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Frustrated with her latest verse, Bishop opts for a change of scenery. Assuming she will not stay long, Bishop accepts an invitation from her old college friend Mary. They probably should have had a romantic relationship, but neither was quite ready to face up to their sexual identities at the time. Now Mary is in a committed relationship with the accomplished modernist architect Lota de Macedo Soares—or at least she thinks she is.
Initially, the brash Soares and the socially clumsy Bishop clash rather badly, but the former warms to the latter as she recognizes the poet’s neurotic vulnerabilities. Before long, they are deeply involved romantically. Yet, Soares is determined to maintain a mostly platonic relationship with Mary as well. Things get rather awkward for the pseudo love triangle, plus there happens to be a military coup brewing.
Frankly, some of the best parts of Moon happen at the margins. Treat Williams never breaks a sweat as Bishop’s friend and colleague Robert Lowell, but his opening and closing scenes perfectly encapsulate the essence of the film. Likewise, the film offers some intriguing historical revisionism through its largely sympathetic depiction of Soares’ family friend Carlos Lacerda, the one-time governor of Rio and disillusioned coup supporter (played by Marcello Airoldi, with fine understatement). Barreto and screenwriters Matthew Chapman and Julie Sayres also incorporate Bishop’s verse into the film in shrewdly organic ways.
However, Bishop and Soares simply never make a convincing couple. Still, it is not for a lack of trying on Miranda Otto’s part. She is uncomfortably brittle throughout, leading viewers to suspect Bishop was a borderline Asperger’s case, whose symptoms were exacerbated by her admitted alcoholism. Nevertheless, Otto pulls us into Bishop’s interior turmoil rather effectively. It is a showy performance, but not excessively so in a Meryl Streepy kind of way. In contrast, Glória Pires’ Soares basically comes in two speeds: tough talking go-getter and bereft basket case.