On the whole, directors should be careful when making films from best sellers. The rush of enthusiasm in the reading community (think women’s book clubs and Oprah selections) doesn’t always flow through to a sensible or even enjoyable film. This one comes with lots of “I loved the book” anticipation and some strong first week business is probably guaranteed. The greater puzzle is why Richard Linklater should decide to add this to his eccentric but often brilliant oeuvre. Perhaps the thematic key is the stress of maintaining family for, after all, Linklater made one of the most remarkable films about growing up in America in Boyhood (2014).
A further thing that will get the film noticed is another big performance from Cate Blanchett in the lead. Despite an only half-committed accent, she is fully committed to the role. Here she is again playing an American eccentric on the borderline of being annoying. Her character is the eponymous Bernadette. She is an architect of ‘genius’ who was so original that she struggled against the constraints of her (mostly-male) profession, and she more or less dropped out at the height of her powers.
Now, she is an undiagnosed manic depressive who lives in a rundown mansion in Seattle (picking up on the joke that builders always have the worst houses). She is married to a geeky IT millionaire, Elgie (Billy Crudup) who worships her but still somehow ends up taking her for granted. He tries hard as a dad and a supporter but his ‘crime’ is not to provide enough opportunity for Bernadette to realise her great potential.
They have a precocious daughter called Bee (a nice perf from relative newcomer Emma Nelson) who is unhappy at her posh school and slightly embarrassed by her eccentric mother.
In a series of ridiculously implausible plot twists Bernadette ‘escapes’ her life and ends up on an Antarctic adventure. The film then contrives to make the place provide an opportunity for visionary architects.
The choice of the Antarctic is itself significant because in many ways it represents the ultimate positional good in travel one upmanship terms (one day this will be the moon). The very fact that we shouldn’t really be opening up this pristine place for tourism at all gives it unassailable snob value. If you have ‘everything’ then what is the next thing you must collect in your search for ‘experiences’?
The book has been hailed as a satire on the go-getting classes in Seattle (where the book’s author Maria Semple lives). If this is so, then it is true only in the sense that Bridget Jones’s Diary is a ‘satire’ on romance. In other words, the film pushes all the right buttons for the self-help generation trying to perfect their lives (and regretting the first world obstacles that fall in their way) without ever really questioning the need for the quest in the first place. Self-actualisation is an unquestioned good for the upper middle class in rich countries. Deep down though, it is quite conventional and takes the case of a safe white fantasy to be a paradigmatic search for meaning. If the tale had just a bit more grit, we could perhaps get some traction on its glassy surfaces.