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“Never Smiles:” Elizabeth Bishop Biopic Garners Village Voice’s Rotten Tomatoes
Well, oh well. There’s a new biopic out, exploring the life and legacy of Elizabeth Bishop, but the Voice doesn’t recommend that you see it. The film, Reaching for the Moon, is directed by Bruno Barreto, starring Miranda Otto as the acclaimed poet. Bummer!
The biopic, with its stubborn fidelity to the contours of real life, seems a poor form with which to honor a poet. Literalism is inimical to poetry, and yet literalism is the biopic’s principal currency: Its every movement remains in thrall to reality, however mundane, unglamorous, or undramatic.
And so it is for Reaching for the Moon, a film which, despite its almost parodically lofty title, takes strictly the most pedestrian approach to its subject, Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto). Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, former poet laureate Bishop is about as widely decorated in America as career metrists come, which doubtless made her irresistible to the world’s biographers and zealous adaptors of nonfiction.
The results of these efforts are, frankly, a bore.
Brazilian director Bruno Barreto, making his first English-language feature since 2003’s wholly forgotten Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle View from the Top, perhaps gravitated to the author when he learned that she spent many of her most creatively fruitful years living in Rio de Janeiro, a setting Barreto relishes.
But the life and work prove considerably harder to depict, let alone elucidate or enliven. Inspiration swallowed whole by a hopeless languor, Bishop ventures to Brazil seeking a dose of the country’s natural vigor, which she summarily finds in none other than Lota de Macedo Soares, esteemed architect and, as it happens, attractive prospective lover.
In their 15-year affair Barreto locates the heart of his drama, but, alas, the clichés of the form win out. Poetry refracts life; this film can only reflect it, and tritely at that.
Sigh. You can probably guess that we’re Bishop fans. If you’re interested in quenching your thirst for a Bishop biography, we recommend Sarah Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth,” which we gushed over a few months back.