The American poet Elizabeth Bishop was known to be a reserved, introspective woman, and Reaching for the Moon, a movie about her 15-year sojourn in Brazil, is as staid and polite as the lady herself. In fact, one is tempted to say the film is too polite. Directed by mid-grade Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto (Bossa Nova, View from the Top), it's a respectable biopic that's perfectly watchable and charmingly photographed, but that could stand to loosen up a bit.
When we begin, in 1951, the melancholy Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) is in New York City, already well established as a respected poet but at the moment creatively blocked. Her friend and mentor, fellow poet Robert Lowell (Treat Williams), gives helpful advice about her poetry, and also makes good-natured "weekly attacks on [her] virtue," as she puts it, romantic overtures that she rebuffs with demure courtesy. She decides to take a trip to clear her head: "The geographic cure," Robert says. "Terrific, except you can't escape yourself." Elizabeth's response is a simple, "We'll see."
She takes a boat to Brazil, where she knows some people, intending to stay for a couple weeks before embarking on a longer journey around South America. She has a college friend there, Mary (Tracy Middendorf), who lives with her romantic partner, renowned Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires), in a lavish home Lota designed. At first Elizabeth is an awkward fit for Brazil in general and at odds with Lota specifically. Brash, boisterous, and confident, Lota is practically the opposite of Elizabeth, who can't stand the sound of her own poetry and keeps insulting the local culture without intending to.
An illness forces Elizabeth to stick around longer than she planned, and during this time her relationship with Lota changes. Lota, bear in mind, is the committed domestic partner of Elizabeth's friend Mary. But Lota summarizes her philosophy pretty succinctly: "What kind of life can you expect if you put friendship before love?" Mary doesn't leave the picture entirely -- an awkward three-sided relationship emerges instead -- but Lota succeeds in drawing Elizabeth out of her shell of reticence into a romance.
Lota describes Elizabeth early in the film as "imperious, aloof," which is as apt as anything I could come up with. But there is warmth in her, waiting to be coaxed out and understood. Miranda Otto, whose striking resemblance to Jodie Foster feels somehow thematically appropriate here, conveys the poet's inner turmoil, her struggles with alcohol, and her creative frustration with radiant clarity and sympathy. Gloria Pines, a Brazilian actress who's rarely (if ever) been seen on American movie screens, brings strength and energy to the role of Lota as well. She really gets to shine later in the film, when it's Lota who's suffering emotionally while Elizabeth holds an even keel.
Barreto made the film on location in Brazil, of course, and his cinematographer, Mauro Pinheiro Jr., captures the country's lush, gorgeous scenery. You can see why an American poet might stick around for 15 years, romance or not. The aesthetic qualities support the movie's general tone of pleasant, unobjectionable drama for grown-ups.
Which can wear thin after a while. The story (based on Carmen L. Oliveira fact-based novel Flores raras e banalissimas) makes a half-hearted effort to flesh out Elizabeth's life by flashing back to painful childhood memories (her mother was carted away to a loony bin), and it has Elizabeth summarize the theme: "You can't expect someone who was raised in a desert to swim like a fish." Showing emotion is hard for her, more so when she's surrounded by vibrant, outgoing types. And so the movie, too, is restrained and muted, handling its stormy and passionate material with such delicacy that you long for some a moment or two of crassness, just to liven things up.