Where’d You Go, Bernadette
The book Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (with a question mark) was everywhere a few years ago; you could see the distinctive cover art of a woman’s face, hidden by sunglasses, peeking out of beachbags. The 2012 novel by Maria Semple is a friendly mystery about a middle-aged former architect who goes AWOL from Seattle—told through the eyes of her beloved 15-year-old daughter, Bee. Now, it is a Richard Linklater film with Cate Blanchett in the title role. No question mark.
It’s right there in the title, Bernadette disappears, apparently because of a last-straw psychic break brought on by the stress of agreeing to take Bee on a reward holiday to Antarctica. Before that, a series of misunderstandings builds up between Bernadette and the community around her, and we learn those circumstances through narrative passages by her thoughtful, smart teenager. These are interspersed between bits of “found text”: snippy emails between moms from Bee’s school who don’t care for the reclusive Bernadette; Bernadette’s messages to a foreign-based virtual assistant named Manjula; and strange weather reports from parts unknown.
As Bee tries to piece together all of this evidence, she and the audience learn that Bernadette was the most promising architect of her generation, but left the business to become a recluse in Seattle after her award-winning masterpiece was destroyed by a vengeful neighbor. Her life since has been tough and her leaky house is a fortress in which she nurses her failure, grief and nerves.
In Semple’s novel, there is a lot of the trend-loving tech smugness to laugh at, and Bernadette didn’t embrace that ethos. She achieved two great architectural works before quitting, both based on the principle of recycling, upcycling and embracing the local and the handmade. That humane architectural ethic provides some reason for us to care when Bernadette goes missing.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Book vs Film
So, on to Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Fortunately, we have Cate Blanchett to play Bernadette. Unfortunately, director Richard Linklater gets a lot of things wrong.
The script has it’s work cut out for it – how do you take a book made up of emails and receipts and diary entries and create a fully fleshed-out story? All that is sassy and subversive in the plot has been excised in favor of the shortest route to a happy ending that feels beyond forced.
Billy Crudup is Elgie, Bernadette’s oblivious husband who is having an affair. His character in the movie is spineless and apologetic instead of the baddie he needs to be to make his wife run.
Oh, and that’s not a spoiler – she runs away. The movie opens on a reveal of where Bernadette did “Go“. There’s no mystery, and even when Bee and Elgie get worked up, suspecting an accident, akidnapping, even a suicide, we don’t.
Blanchett and her sunglasses are in almost every scene, which is as always a treat to watch, and she conveys intelligence and maternal love with newcomer Emma Nelson as Bee, but there’s no mystery, no energy, no art in the rest of this story. As we are meant to feel the vacant hell of an artist who has lost their calling, perhaps that’s what Linklater was going for?
Who is this Bernadette, who leaves her home and family to go to the edge of the world? Is she running away from something intolerable or towards something missing? Cate Blanchett is as tightly wound as she was in Blue Jasmine, but as empty as that character was, her Bernadette is bursting. She deserves more.
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.