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Sep 16, 2019

BASED ON: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadatte' -- Little Tension & a Little Faith

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

Where’d You Go Bernadette written by Richard Linklater, Holly Gent and Vince Palmo; directed by Linklater, based on a novel by Maria Semple of the same title. (spoiler alert)

Note: Fandango and IMDB both show the running time to be 2 hours and 10 minutes. The theatrical version I saw only lasted one hour and 45 minutes.

At the center of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel Where’d You Go Bernadette resides Bernadette Fox (played by Cate Blanchett). A once-sought-after architect, Fox now suffers from agoraphobia, in her specific case, fear of venturing outside and interacting with others. She prefers the indoors and roaming the cloistered environs of her period-piece home.

Fox communicates in a claustrophobic way, too, talking to an advanced Bluetooth/Siri device. Every character in the novel communicates digitally, whether it is via text, email or artificial intelligence. The novelty of the storytelling medium wears off pretty quickly. Director/co-writer Richard Linklater wisely limits technology-obsessed characters to the title one.

One inexplicable story-structure adaptation was revealing too much of the mystery by parallel editing. Bernadette leaves her hometown of Seattle to travel solo on an Antarctica trip originally planned for her family of three. Her story alternates with her husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and middle-school daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) road-tripping in an attempt to catch-up to Bernadette. The novel tells this part of the story through the point of view of Bee. She and her father receive news that their beloved Bernadette has gone missing. Is she the victim of foul play? Self-destruction? Accident? The mystery keeps the reader turning the pages.

The film alternating the two storylines demolishes any chance at dramatic tension. As Elgie and Bee get closer to the observatory set on Antarctica’s peninsula, Bernadette implausibly convinces the director of the observatory that she is the best woman to design the new lab planned for the South Pole.

Visually, too, the story suffers from the parallel editing. The photography could have evoked a feeling of relief when the family finds Bernadette in the vastness of the frozen tundra after nearly two hours running time cooped-up in a house. From the very beginning, we see a cold opening of Bernadette kayaking around icebergs. It catches our attention for sure, but lessens what should have been a more impactful character and location shift later on in the film.

Most surprisingly, the film adds a layer of faith that I didn’t remember encountering in the novel. The book states Bernadette to have once been initiated Catholic, but has now turned atheist. The unstated presumption is that her loss of faith might contribute to her mental instability, having long ago lost any spiritual mooring.

Working through their marital troubles in the film version, Elgie mentions he once gifted Bernadette the saint medal of her name. He exposits that he did so not just because of the name association, but that the real Bernadette Soubirous was a visionary. A lifetime in architecture, too, requires an artist’s vision.

At film’s end, Elgie presents Bernadette with the long-lost medal, as she’s overcome her fears and recovered her artistic “voice.” It’s a bit of a tack-on, but after watching a film lacking in tension, I suppose I’ll take it.

Where's You Go, Bernadette is rated PG-13, for "strong language and drug material."


Image: Courtesy Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures / United Artists Releasing

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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