There’s so much that happens in “The Glorias,” a strenuously well-meaning biopic based on Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir, “My Life on the Road”; the film, like the woman that it depicts, is constantly on the move. In her book, Steinem recalled how her father, a good-natured if hapless salesman who never kept his family rooted to one place, inculcated her with a love of travel. Encountering new places and people can unsettle our assumptions, she wrote; being on the road “specifies,” preventing us from taking refuge in the familiar “generalities.” Under the direction of Julie Taymor, “The Glorias” never truly engages with this idea, skating along the contours of a long life that’s so eventful and accomplished that the end result comes across like a two-plus hour, slickly produced highlight reel.
We see Steinem as a dreamy child (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) and a young adolescent (Lulu Wilson), as her parents squabble about money and eventually split, leaving her mother (Enid Graham) to succumb to depression and hallucinations — her ambitions dashed, her spirit broken. Steinem’s father (Timothy Hutton) is depicted as a boisterous, shambolic presence, cooking up harebrained moneymaking schemes and giving little Gloria, demurring in front of her broccoli, a heaping scoop of ice cream for dinner.
Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore play the grown-up Gloria, both of them impeccably costumed and looking the part, even as their talents get hemmed in by a schematic script from Taymor and the playwright Sarah Ruhl. Steinem moves swiftly from a post-college stint in India, listening to women share their experiences, to a career as a journalist, patronized by male colleagues whose idea of a compliment is to tell her how pretty she is and that she writes “like a man.” She rebukes one editor who warns her that writing a story about abortion would associate her with “those crazy women”: “I am one of those crazy women,” the Vikander version of Gloria says.
And so an activist is born, one who learns to find her voice among other feminists, including Dorthy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler). The intersectional core of the movement is rightfully emphasized, yet in the apparent push to make this movie as instructional and inspirational as possible, the dialogue gets saddled with some heavy-handed exposition.
“The Glorias” is beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, the colors wan and desaturated during Steinem’s roving childhood, becoming more luscious and vibrant as she comes into her own. The film also includes some surrealist interludes. One of them is a phantasmagoria that descends, like a blood-red curtain, in the middle of an insulting interview of Steinem by a leering man, who gets swept up in a “Wizard of Oz”-style tornado as the Glorias leer back. Another is more placid and predictable: a running image of a bus where all the Glorias sit, reassuring one another. It’s a conceit that feels sweet and sincere, but gently condescending too.