The lives of the poets have often found themselves at the mercy of that least poetic, most prosaic of genres, the biopic.

For every poet-film that has evoked the spirit of its subject and their work - my mental list can't remember much past Jane Campion's Bright Star or, um, 8 Mile - there's been a dozen depressive, well-meaning clunkers.

Movies like that make poets suffering for their art a community event. They serve no purpose other than to remind us we really should read more poetry and biographies about the people who wrote them before a biopic comes along and fixes the image for us.

Reaching for the Moon is a movie about Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Otto) and the 15-year relationship she had with Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Pires). That's promising, as it means it's not attempting the full biopic checklist approach.

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Rather, Brazilian director Bruno Barreto is focusing on a pivotal chapter in Bishop's life when she became enamoured with Soares and her country.

So it's a story of a shy, anxious, lonely US East Coast literary figure hooking up with a passionate, outspoken and wealthy gal from Ipanema, or thereabouts. As such it's a fairly gorgeous ruling-class period romance from a place you don't often see those coming from.

It's the sort of movie you'll want to live in, especially on the lush landscaped grounds of Soares' self-designed home near Rio. Vintage clothes enthusiasts will also find plenty to coo about.

Against that background, Barreto sets his story of Bishop arriving to visit her old Vassar classmate - and Soares' American girlfriend - Mary (Middendorf), only for Bishop and Soares to fall for each other despite their different temperaments. The movie does attempt to compare and contrast the pair's individual talents - words vs pictures; imagination vs engineering; shifting lines around a page vs moulding the landscape to your will - but its mind is really more on the ongoing melodramas of the pair's time together.

That includes Mary, despite being given the bedroom shove, sticking around to mother an adopted baby and play PA to Soares as she designs and builds Rio's famous Flamengo Park - the film's title is a reference to her modernist lighting design for the park, which was opened after the 1964 junta ended democracy in Brazil for another two decades.

Meanwhile Bishop, still chipping away at her poetry and still prone to hitting the bottle, eventually starts to feel the pull of academia back in the US.

Despite its poetic leanings, the film does suffer from some soap-level dialogue and scenes. As Soares, Pires is something of a weak link among the performances, with her delivery frequently veering towards the operatic.

But the movie is saved largely by Otto's terrific performance. The Australian actress has played a fair few romantically tragic figures in her career and she's added another good one here.

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Despite the film doing some clunky biopic things, Otto gives this more than enough reason enough to fly down to Rio.

Cast: Miranda Otto, Gloria Pires Tracy Middendorf
Director: Bruno Barreto
Rating:
M (offensive language and content that may disturb)
Running time: 118 mins
Verdict: Miranda Otto shines as North American poet in South American romance

TimeOut