The Glorias Review
Hot on the heels (or should that be platform boots?) of Misbehaviour, in which Keira Knightley led the Women’s Liberation protest against the 1970 Miss World competition, Julie Taymor’s The Glorias charts the life and work of that genuine icon of second wave feminism, Gloria Steinem, with Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore donning the unmistakable flares, wig and aviator sunglasses.
Having emerged from directing theatre and opera, most notably the stage musical rendition of The Lion King, Taymor has helmed a sumptuous Frida Kahlo biopic, two borderline bonkers Shakespeare adaptations and psychedelic Beatles musical Across the Universe. Her penchant for theatricality has certainly not been diminished by the change of medium, but The Glorias sees occasional smatterings of oddness and audaciousness awkwardly butt heads with an otherwise pedestrian journey through Steinem’s life.
Adapted by Taymor and playwright Sarah Ruhl from Steinem’s 2015 memoir My Life on the Road, a bus speeding along an endless strip of tarmac in soft focus monochrome is our framing device. On-board, four incarnations of Steinem at different ages, from childhood to late middle age, contemplate themselves, each other, and the never-ending road ahead.
It’s an inarguably efficient set up, as Julianne Moore’s serene older Steinem can literally question her past selves as their collective story unfolds, while the younger Glorias are able to seek reassurance from big-sisterly embodiments of their future. But the contrivance is too great to be engaging, as if Taymor and Ruhl have taken a shortcut to a fully realised character via a device that has the relatively unemotional Steinem continually vocalising what would otherwise be internalised conflict.
At almost two and a half hours long, The Glorias is certainly a voyage, and some of the Steinems are better travel companions than others. The first segment of the journey dedicated to Steinem’s 1950s childhood which establishes her irresponsible, small-time travelling showman father and long-suffering mother is a real drag, a beige exercise in biopic box-ticking that does little to illuminate Steinem’s work as a writer and activist.
The film gains a spring in its step once Alicia Vikander steps into the role, travelling to India, pursuing journalism in New York, going undercover as a Playboy bunny girl and encountering the other women activists who would shape the movement. Vikander can’t fully mask her natural Swedish accent, but she makes an immensely likeable Steinem, channelling her apparently effortless cool and endearing feistiness that actually conceals a terrible fear of public speaking. Janelle Monáe’s impassioned Dorothy Pitman Hughes, with whom Steinem goes on to co-found Ms. Magazine, draws her out of her shell and into the activism fold.
Yet even though Taymor continues to skip backwards and forwards through the timeline, not only repeatedly returning to her black and white bus centerpiece, but occasionally leaping to one of her other Glorias before the current one’s story has fully played out, there remains a sense of businesslike obligation to it all, as if the film has its necessary Wikipedia subheadings to tackle. Steinem has lived a long and fascinating life, and even such a hefty runtime and a solid performance from Moore doesn’t and can’t do justice to it.
Most problematic are the bizarre CGI-fuelled fever dreams that Taymor has demonstrated she’s so fond of in her earlier films reappearing here, whether it’s M.C. Escher-style black and white images of multiple Glorias running along multiple interlocking roads, or a Wizard of Oz homage featuring a sexist interview enveloped in a blood red tornado while the Vikander and Moore Glorias cackle like witches.
Achieved practically, such sequences might have been enjoyably theatrical, but the CGI is so soulless that they’re a shadow of what might be achievable on a physical stage. A conscious effort to move away from the bland biopics designed to showcase a supposedly transformative performance from a Hollywood stalwart is much needed, but when the remainder of the film is so unimaginative, bold stylistic flourishes only look like increasingly desperate injections of pizzazz.
Real footage from the Women’s March in January 2017 in Washington D.C. at which Steinem spoke features prominently towards the end of the film. The orchestra swells reverentially and yet, perhaps through no fault of the film itself, it functions only as a grim, unnecessary reminder of the relentless horrors of the Trump administration. As the US Presidential election looms once again and voters must choose between two candidates accused of sexual assault, revisiting that moment of resistance can’t help but ring hollow.
Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment will release The Glorias on digital and streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video September 30.