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Empathetic portrait: ‘The Glorias’ explores Steinem’s life, from child to teen to middle age to present

Lorraine Toussaint as Flo Kennedy, left, and Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem in a scene from “The Glorias.” (Dan Mcfadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Gloria Steinem is always in conversation with herself in ” The Glorias,” a sprawling and thoughtful biopic of the writer and activist. Director Julie Taymor knows better than to try to capture her entire life in a film, even one as long as this, and her reflective odyssey of a woman and icon who never stops growing is a beautifully messy attempt at something bigger. It doesn’t always work, but it has a natural engine and spirit to it that keeps you focused.

The film is based on Steinem’s memoir “My Life on the Road,” a concept which Taymor chooses to employ both literally and figuratively. Her Glorias, Julianne Moore as the middle-aged version, Alicia Vikander as the young woman, Lulu Wilson as the teen and Ryan Kira Armstrong as the child, are always on the move and never at home. They’re also all put together as co-passengers on a charter bus ride. It’s on this highway to who-knows-where that they discuss their hopes, their regrets and their evolving perspective on everything from marriage to better comebacks for misogynist comments. Taymor checks in with the bus Glorias throughout, as though they were live commentators on their own story.

Taymor and her co-writer, Sarah Ruhl, skip through Steinem’s life, including both the greatest public hits (going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, launching the National Women’s Political Caucus and forming Ms. Magazine) as well the less-known private moments (missing her father’s death, caring for her sick mother).

Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem, left, and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in a scene from “The Glorias.” (Dan McFadden/LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

Shot by the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Silence,” “Brokeback Mountain”), “The Glorias” works to create a kind of living document of someone whose rise was all but inevitable. Along the way, she forms bonds and professional relationships with fellow legends including Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Dolores Huerta (Mónica Sánchez) and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero). Bette Midler also makes a late film appearance as Bella Abzug.

“The Glorias” avoids much deep examination of its heroine’s supposed flaws or hypocrisies and instead presents an empathetic portrait of an empathetic person for whom home and family were never consistent. She is always looking to be enlightened and surprised, whether on the third-class women’s-only train car in India or at a biker bar in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where she finds some unlikely fans. When a reporter asks her what she’d say to someone who says that the feminist movement doesn’t include Black women, she responds that she wouldn’t say anything; she’d just listen. She also seemed uncomfortable with her singular celebrity and the consistent attention on her looks.

This being a Taymor production, you can expect a few genuinely trippy sequences that come out of nowhere. But these maximalist sequences don’t detract from the overall film (they don’t add much either, but you can’t help but appreciate them nonetheless).

All of the Glorias are wonderful at their parts too, although some might ding Vikander for her accent. Yet I think what she achieves is more powerful than a dead-on impression, and Taymor should be applauded for taking a chance on the Swedish actor with imperfect American pronunciation.

“The Glorias” throws its hands up at the end with a jarring cut to Steinem reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, shots of recent women’s marches and even some of the real Steinem herself. Her impact is hard to quantify in a few minutes, and these choices are a bit obvious and a bit artless for an otherwise smart and engaging film that avoids most cloying cliches.

But maybe a neat and tidy ending would be asking too much. This is a woman and a society that are still evolving, even as the credits are rolling.

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