Where'd You Go, Bernadette

  • 31 Aug - 06 Sep, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

The Richard Linklater's film is an adaptation of Maria Semple's popular 2012 book about an eccentric, anxious, semi-agoraphobic, and mean Seattle mother/wife named Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett). Bernadette only really cares about her daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), and her husband, Elgin Branch (Billy Crudup), a rich Microsoft visionary. And she especially can't stand the "Galen School Gnats" (the busybody, do-gooder moms at Bee's liberal-elite private school), like her neighbour Audrey (Kristen Wiig). After finishing middle school with perfect grades, the precocious Bee asks for a holiday family trip to Antarctica – a request to which Bernadette, who can barely leave the house and outsources nearly all of her duties to Manjula, an email-based virtual assistant in India, surprisingly agrees. But as the trip nears, Bernadette – who, it turns out, is a former MacArthur "Genius" award-winning architect who hasn't worked in 20 years – goes missing.

The performances, particularly Blanchett's, outweigh the product in this adaptation that favours audiences familiar with the story and its anxious-genius main character. There's a moment in the film where Bernadette tells a research scientist that she needs to inhabit a space completely to design for it; that's also how Blanchett immerses herself in a character, whether it's Queen Elizabeth, Galadriel, Kate Hepburn, Jasmine, or Hela. The character of Bernadette is purposely unlikable at first, with her utter contempt and petty squabbles and her upper-class distance from reality. Her one happy place is any time she's with her daughter, Bee, who's the apple of Bernadette's eye and possibly the only person around whom she's joyful. But Blanchett is brilliant at expressing the subtle changes that revive Bernadette’s artistic energy.

Crudup’s Elgin is perhaps too sympathetic in the film and not as overtly an egotistical workaholic as his character is in the book, but it’s still clear that none of the other school parents blame or hate him for not being involved, the way they do Bernadette. And Laurence Fishburne is remarkably effective in one pivotal conversation scene as Bernadette's prophetic and inspiring former mentor. Visually, the film focuses on architecture and the design of each space in a way that honours the main character. Plotwise, however, those who haven’t read the book may be less invested in the central story arc, especially with the Manjula storyline, which is more humorously handled in the source material. This is an adaptation to see because of the performances more than anything else, because Blanchett always makes it worth a viewer’s time.