2006Director: Chris Noonan
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Renée Zellweger
ost in the shuffle of late-2006 holiday releases, Miss Potter arrives on DVD with little preexistent fanfare, but this delightful trifle certainly merits the attention of an audience now. It also deserves distinction from the seemingly never-ending spate of recent high-profile biopics. In this respect, Potter is not even the first film of late about a British children’s writer with a ceaseless imagination. Just over two years after Johnny Depp portrayed J.M. Barrie in the rather successful Finding Neverland, this is a similar fable about the little-known life of Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger), author of, among many other stories, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” Forgoing a sprawling A to Z catalogue of the titular figure’s life, Potter (like Neverland) offers instead a window into a condensed, eventful period of her early writing. A consistently pleasant movie-going experience, it never quite transcends its formula trappings either, amounting to a lovely, admittedly minor film.
Beginning when Beatrix Potter first finds a publisher (however reluctant) for her books, the film follows her early years as a notable author. The filmmakers place a special accent on the “Miss” of the title, because at thirty-two years of age and unwed, Potter claims she made the decision long ago never to pursue marriage. Such a vow, dramaturgically, is meant to be broken, and soon enough she begins a flirtation with her handsome publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). In addition to his novice publishing career, Warne cares for his ailing mother and entertains his marriage-renouncing sister Millie (Emily Watson, in a humorous though strangely mannish turn). Norman becomes an unabashed fan of Beatrix’s, giving the author and her books his special attention. He takes Beatrix to the printer to ensure her color pictures contain the correct hues and brings her by bookshops every time her new works appear in the windows. She draws him pictures and reads stories to him while they sip tea.
All of this proceeds so swimmingly and with such charm that, inevitably, something catastrophic must occur to throw the characters off-balance. Her parents’ disapproval of her union with a tradesman becomes only a secondary conflict. Such a dramatic arc hardly will impress viewers as particularly fresh, but the filmmakers glide through this formula with such an easeful, even enchanting air that audiences may hardly recognize the storyline’s familiar skeleton. Unfortunately, the film never finds its footing after the luster of Potter’s happiness fades, though it does move along effortlessly enough against picturesque country backdrops. Director Chris Noonan, in his first film since Babe (1995), displays a delicate, wistful touch, ensuring most spectators will be grinning through even the film’s slight unraveling during the third act.
Just because Miss Potter follows some biography checkpoints, don’t think you will be watching untamed passions at play and corsets fly across the room: Potter hardly lived as violent, sexy, or as tortured a life as Johnny Cash, Truman Capote, or Tina Turner, but she nonetheless proves more than a worthy subject. In contrast to such biopics in recent memory cruising on the novelty value of glorified celebrity impersonations (Jamie Foxx IS Ray Charles!!), Miss Potter gets by largely on the audience’s unfamiliarity with Potter and the unapologetically simple story of her life, love, and loss. Newbie screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. does not force sub-plots or pump the script up with melodramatic theatrics. Here, the filmmakers seem to say, is an underappreciated, restrained yet remarkable woman in her own right, fully deserving of an audience’s attention.
In early scenes, however, Potter’s oddities strike an admittedly bizarre tone. As she talks to the animal characters in her drawings (or “friends” as she deems them), Potter initially comes off as rather demented. She seems an unappealing, idiosyncratic woman, full of tics, entirely desexualized and with limited social skills to boot. Turn the notch a few clicks and the audience might find themselves in the presence of a period-garbed serial killer. Moreover, the filmmakers decide to show, via live animation, her drawn figures physically reacting to her commands (i.e. her Christmas rabbits frolicking about and ignoring her advice to stay still while she paints them), which hardly aids her insanity case. Still, as the film progresses, Potter accumulates enough sincerity to override her potentially off-putting peculiarities. She ultimately emerges as a bit cuckoo, for sure, but never lacking compassion nor, more significantly, an admirable autonomy. As she struggles against her mother in particular to declare her love to the genial, humble Mr. Warne, Potter reveals a hard-heartedness that should endear her to the more skeptical audience members.
Zellweger helps matters. If Bridget Jones was her girl, then Beatrix Potter certainly is her woman. Pursed lips and adorably crinkled facial expressions throughout, Zellweger lends Potter a singular affability, saving the film from its subversive flirtations with Potter’s utter bizarreness. As the dashing Mr. Warne, McGregor makes an apt foil for Zellweger, though his character hardly transcends the usual love interest duties. Warne shows up, looks attractive, and speaks articulately. McGregor has a history of stealing films from lead women with top billing (see A Life Less Ordinary, Moulin Rouge!, and even Down with Love, the sparkling 60s homage co-starring none else but Zellweger herself). Though McGregor hits all the notes required of him and even ups the ante with a cuddly charisma, the script never shifts the focus off of its lead woman.
For, in case any doubt lingers, this is the enchanting tale of Beatrix Potter; everybody else are mere characters coloring her pages. That the film never strays from this disposition, and manages to maintain such an effervescent nonchalance while doing so, marks a small literary achievement within itself.
Miss Potter is now available on DVD.
By: Mike D’Alessandro
Published on: 2007-07-30