On the Hunt for a Good Film: A Review of 2019's Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
It has been quite some time since I’ve reviewed a movie on this blog. 2019 was a great year for book to movie adaptations. There was of course the critically acclaimed adaptation of Little Women, the hit YA novels Five Feet Apart and The Sun is Also a Star made their big screen debuts in March and May respectively, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette had a late summer release in August of 2019 as well.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the only book out of those that I’ve actually read in full. As I’ve mentioned in my Little Women movie review, I’ve never read the entirety of Little Women, and I’ve never read Five Feet Apart or The Sun is Also a Star; both of those are on the TBR list though, I’ll get to them when I get to them.
Anyway, I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette back in either my junior or senior year of high school at the recommendation of my English teacher. Shout out of Ms. Mondale for being there for me all throughout high school and making sure I survived the stupidity that is 9th through 12th grade.
I do admit that I don’t remember much about the novel other than the iconic scene where the hillside separating Bernadette’s home from her least favorite neighbor’s house ends up sliding into, and destroys, said neighbor’s house. That’s the highlight of the novel right there. It was also a great scene in the film.
I was going into this film somewhat blind considering I only remember the basic overview of the plot, and only had clear details on the scene mentioned above. The only other thing I remembered about this novel turned movie was that I didn’t fully appreciate this novel when I first read it. I was 17 when I read this book, I didn’t follow the mental illness aspect that was plaguing Bernadette. Had I read this book now, I would have had a highly different understanding to the main character; just by watching the movie I had a different view of the character than I remember having back in 2015. We’ll talk more on that later.
The 2019 adaptation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette stared Cate Blanchett in the title role. This was honestly some perfect casting. Blanchett fit the bill when it came to Bernadette’s looks and mannerism. Between hair, make up, wardrobe, and set design, the perfect aesthetic for Bernadette was created. Blanchett was able to fill the screen with her presence, but the issue with this character is that she’s overly misanthropic leading to a lack of chemistry between characters that hinders the film itself.
Scenes between Bernadette and her 15-year-old daughter Bee shinned. The chemistry between Blanchett and Emma Nelson, who played Bee, was brilliant. Sadly, this was the only pairing that worked on screen. Blanchett and Nelson feel like a close mother-daughter duo, and they were a high point in the film.
Blanchett and her on screen husband, Billy Crudup, did come across as a couple in a strained relationship, but the blandness of the two together made it hard to believe this couple was once in love.
The same goes for the relationship between Crudup and Zoe Chao. Crudup’s character, Elgie Branch, has an emotional affair with a woman he works with, Soo-Lin Lee-Segal. Unfortunately, the chemistry between the pair is also poor, and once again, makes it hard to imagine these two having a romantic connection. While this pair is never seen in much of any setting outside of work, nothing between the two in the work setting clues viewers in that this pair may be more than something professional. When Bernadette discusses Soo-Lin with her husband or any other character, she just comes across as a jealous woman who is upset that her husband has female co-workers.
Emma Nelson and Kristen Wiig are the only two in the cast whose performances I fully enjoyed. I thought that Nelson provided a zealous performance. The spirited nature of Bee came across the first moment she appeared on screen. I think Nelson was perfect casting for this role, and I think she did wonders on screen.
Kristen Wiig is honestly a national treasure. She played up the comedy in the role of Audrey impeccably well. At the same time, she added so much heart to the role. Wiig played up the stereotype that Audrey is; this character tends to be the overbearing mom-in-charge type who thinks she runs the private school her child attends. There is a lot of comedy that is allowed in that type of character, but she thankfully didn’t make Audrey the ball-to-the-walls, crazy mom/neighbor type. Instead, she chose to show humanity in the character. Deep down, Audrey truly does care about the school her child attends and she just wants it to be the best it can be. Planning school events is something that she can have control over. She can’t control her neighbors, or her son as viewers find out, but she can control how an event looks; that’s the crux of the character and without it Wiig’s portrayal of Audrey would have fallen flat.
My absolutely favorite part of this film was the set design. Remember in my Little Women review where we became a historic fashion blog for a hot minute? Well that’s gonna happen again, except instead of fashion history we’re going to talk about the beautiful set design.
In the novel, it’s set up that Bernadette and her small family live in this massive former Catholic school. There are confessionals, religious icons, murals, stained glass windows, and other such items that remain from the former school. That is kept in the movie, but no attention is drawn to it; which works well since the family proceed as if their home is like any other.
Blanchett continues her character’s day to day life in a mix of rundown rooms with religious figures looking on to rooms that has been painstakingly renovated. It should be no surprise that the upper bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, and small living area are fully renovated while other areas, such as a parlor room Bernadette spends a lot of her time in, are left in a rundown state. Other areas were a mix of the two showing paint cans at the ready or half finished projects.
My favorite set piece was the one stairwell Bernadette sits on to watch a video essay on herself. She’s turned old books in an interesting wall paper. It looks as if she’s attached full books in a diamond-esque pattern along the wall. It’s such a cool look that blends vintage and modern styles together into something new. I would love to have that stairwell in a the home library I one day hope to own.
And it’s just not the school turned home that is absolutely gorgeous. Any of Bernadette’s past work that is shown on screen has so many interesting textures and angles that make it so pleasing to the eye. The bifocal artwork that was made for the film was a perfect example of modern art.
Then there’s the distinct difference between Bernadette’s home and Audrey’s. Audrey has a “perfect” house with an open floor plan, white furniture with blue accents, hard wood floors throughout; it’s a dream home for any couple on House Hunters. I could honestly go on and on about the set design; Bruce Curtis did such a fantastic job with the production design.
The only issue I had outside of the lack of chemistry in the cast was the poor way mental health is handled in the film. There is no diagnosis on what Bernadette is going through. She has some form of mental illness that may be depression and anxiety or something more severe like mania or a bipolar disorder. There is no defined issue that Bernadette suffers from, either in the book or movie, but I personally believe that she’s dealing with severe social anxiety and depression.
With that said, characters who are not mental health professionals attempt to diagnose her and “help” her by staging an intervention with someone who is a mental health professional. But that doctor, portrayed by Judy Greer, never has a session with Bernadette prior to this intervention to discuss her mental health and the first time the women meet, Greer’s character automatically wants to have Bernadette voluntarily committed to a mental health facility. It continues to go downhill from there as Greer’s character informs Bernadette that if she does not go willingly, she will be forcibly taken and committed.
I’m not a mental health professional, but I don’t think a psychiatrist can technically do that upon meeting a possible patient for the first time unless there is evidence that a patient is a threat to his or herself or others. Especially since Bernadette is never properly diagnosed with anything other than a social anxiety and insomnia thanks to her family doctor before the movie’s narrative begins everything about this intervention scene feels highly inappropriate.
The only positive form of mental health help comes from Bernadette’s own doing. Upon escaping to an Antarctica research station, she begins to design the new research station that is needed for the scientists to properly do their jobs. She finally has an outlet for her energy, as she says, and this return to architecture is a big positive in her life. But she has no other outlets, and once this is over without anything in place to help her mental health, a decline is likely.
The same goes for the book, but connecting a face to a mental health issue and then seeing it on the silver screen puts the issue in the forefront of audiences’ minds. While I believe that Blanchett’s portrayal of Bernadette’s mental health issues is accurate, I find the lack of help the character has, finds, and receives can have a highly negative impact on those suffering from similar issues but remain undiagnosed.
In a way, the film is almost saying that all someone needs to cope with depression or anxiety or a general mental illness is to just ignore all your problems and runaway from them.
It’s not healthy to do that! Please, don’t do that. There are many forms of professional and/or healthy help that one can receive. Creative outlets, like Bernadette returning to her architecture career, are helpful and healthy. Running away is the probably one of the worst things that could happen.
In short, I think this film is a faithful adaptation of the 2012 novel. Some of the performances were top notch, and the sets were absolutely beautiful. I think some of the casting could have been better, and the way mental health is handled could have been presented much better. If you were a fan of the novel, then you’ll probably like the film adaptation. The changes that were to the plot were necessary to translate the book to the screen. If you’re not familiar with the book and are considering watching it, I would say watch it if you’re a fan of Cate Blanchette or Kristen Wiig because you’ll probably enjoy their performances. You can rent the film for under five dollars on a lot of platforms, so give it a try if you enjoy light comedy films.
If you’re concerned with the way mental health seems to be handled, then I would suggest skipping this one. If that’s something that is a concern to you, I would recommend reading the novel instead as there are more details regarding the main character’s mental health presented there that could be helpful in one’s understanding of the issues Bernadette is suffering from.