American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Reaching for the Moon" is one of those frustrating biopics that try to cram in so much about a famous person's life that they end up feeling superficial, rushed and ultimately unenlightening.
The famous person in question here is Elizabeth Bishop, the celebrated, influential American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Miranda Otto plays Bishop with a palpable chilliness that eventually thaws the longer she stays in Rio, the lush wonderland where she lived and loved for a fruitful and fraught period of 15 years. But getting inside her head—inside her process—remains elusive, leaving us at arm's length.
Thankfully, Brazilian director Bruno Barreto doesn't try to encompass the entirety of her life. Instead, he focuses on Bishop's romance with famed architect Lota de Macedo Soares, creator of Rio's Flamengo Park. Veteran telenovela actress and force of nature Gloria Pires gives a charismatic performance that provides this otherwise-safe film with much of its verve. After all, this is the kind of movie in which the title, "Reaching for the Moon," appears on screen, and then we see Elizabeth looking longingly at the moon from the deck of a ship carrying her southward from New York City.
The script from Matthew Chapman and Julie Sayres, based on the Carmen L. Oliveira book "Rare and Commonplace Flowers," begins in 1951 as the 40-year-old Elizabeth is struggling to compose what would become her most famous poem, "One Art." (It begins: "The art of losing isn't hard to master.") Hoping for inspiration, she accepts the invitation of a former Vassar classmate, Mary (Tracy Middendorf), to visit her and her lover, Lota, at their secluded Shangri-La just outside Rio de Janeiro.