In Where'd You Go, Bernadette? Cate Blanchett once again turns on her star power

Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup in Where'd You Go, Bernadette? Picture: Universal
Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup in Where'd You Go, Bernadette? Picture: Universal

Where'd you go, Bernadette? (M)

4 stars

Possibly my favourite Australian film of all time is Cherie Nowlan's little-seen 1997 feature Thank God He Met Lizzie, in which Richard Roxburgh reflects on the girlfriend who saw him through his twenties and what a prat he was to her. The girlfriend he remembers with rose-colours glasses is played by Frances O'Connor, while the Lizzie of the title is Cate Blanchett in her first feature role.

The title is ironic - Blanchett's Lizzie is a real catch and the film is set at their wedding, but the point of the film is that Roxburgh's Guy wasn't mature enough to realise that he let the right girl slip away.

So successful is Cherie Nowlan's character-building that I crushed so hard on Frances O'Connor's character and so resented Blanchett's that it has taken two decades to slowly warm to Cate Blanchett's charms.

They are many of course, and they've been acknowledged by two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and the (co) Artistic Directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company. She doesn't need my approbation.

But Blanchett is having a moment at the moment - about her 10th 'moment' in a career only two decades long - with an absolutely brilliant turn in the TV series' Mrs America and Stateless, which she also produced, and with this charming flick from master filmmaker Richard Linklater.

Blanchett plays Bernadette, a genius wunderkind architect who fled her meteoric career two decades previously to live in obscurity in suburban Seattle, bringing up her daughter Bee with tech genius husband Elgie (Billy Crudup).

Bee goes to a privileged private school and the bane of Bernadette's existence is neighbour Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and her gaggle of privileged helicopter mothers. Her relationship with Elgie is strained, as is her grasp on real life, hiding away from everyone and everything except her daughter. Nothing is too much for Bee, and Bernadette even agrees to a family vacation to Antarctica so that Bee has first-hand experience for a school assignment.

When Bernadette's vindictive streak puts her neighbour in actual physical danger, Elgie sets up an intervention and plans to take Bee to Antarctica himself while Bernadette is placed in care for therapy. Bernadette flees, heading alone to the South Pole.

Already adored by the Generation X-ers who grew up with and on him, Richard Linklater solidified his icon status with his 2014 feature Boyhood, shot over a decade. He'd already helped shape the current Hollywood firmament by offering starting gigs to fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zelwegger in Dazed and Confused, and with collaborators Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke created the almost-perfect Before Sunrise series.

This is another almost-perfect film. Clever, dark and funny. It speaks to many things, but it will particularly speak to the artistically stalled. I've certainly experienced writer's block, and this dives into the psychology of creative block. The title of the film has two depths of meaning, referring both to Bernadette's flight to the South Pole, but also to the questions about her once stellar career.

Linklater and his production team are at their best when fabricating Bernadette Fox's architecture and design, beginning with a faux 'Where are they now' internet doco Bernadette watches about herself, referring to her as "one of architecture's true enigmas".

The team place the film's frame with pieces of Bernadette's supposed furniture, her design flourishes in the giant abandoned girls reform school she and her family live in. There is a stairway lined with blue-dyed folded books that every wannabe Instagram influencer who watches this will emulate for the next year.

There are fragments of Bernadette's "Bifocal Home", with walls of old eyeglasses linked together like chain mail. Production designer Bruce Curtis was completely overlooked for some genius work here.

Adapted from the novel by Maria Semple, the screenplay by Linklater, Holly Gent and Vince Palmo is less whimsical and sharp, more existential.

Linklater's star power draws in big names for incidental roles, including Lawrence Fishburn and and Megan Mullallay as architects recalling the greatness of young Bernadette's promise. Judy Greer is the psychiatrist Elgin draws into the intervention. As Elgin, Crudup gives a restrained performance befitting a man married to a tortured artist, holding back.

But I intend to end this review as I began it, focusing, as the film does throughout, on Cate Blanchett. She is spectacular. Yes, her skin is spectacular. Remind me to invest in that Japanese moisturiser she flogs in magazines. No, her performance is spectacular.

Bernadette is so relatable thanks to Blanchett. Her sneering at the other parents from her daughter's school. We've all felt like that, haven't we? Her lashing out, her frustrations, her love. Her character is going to be especially felt by anyone who feels they peaked too young and wonders when that drive or spotlight might return.

I feel this stands alongside Blue Jasmine as one of Blanchett's finest performances, among many.

This story Another star turn for Blanchett first appeared on The Canberra Times.