"Miss Potter" is a more successful pairing of Renee Zellweger (pictures) and Ewan McGregor than the kitschy, cloying '60s spoof "Down With Love." (Then again, anything would have been.)
The story of how children's author Beatrix Potter got her start certainly has its charms, though - it's a lovely, sweet, harmless tale suitable for the entire family. And it allows Zellweger to brandish her well-honed British accent; unmarried at 32 and bucking societal pressures, Beatrix Potter could have been Bridget Jones 100 years earlier.
But it also feels more lightweight than it should and simultaneously not magical enough, considering that this is the first film that director Chris Noonan has made since the brilliant "Babe" from 1995. It has touches of whimsy, like the way in which the colorful, illustrated animals flicker to life on the page when Beatrix talks to them, but not enough. You walk in expecting something more inventive from such a filmmaker, not a traditional biography.
The script from Tony-winning musical director Richard Maltby Jr. traces Beatrix's literary beginnings in Victorian London, when she takes her drawings of bunnies and ducks (her friends, as she regards them) and turns them into unexpected literary classics. In Zellweger's hands, Beatrix is both a bit daffy and slightly nerdy but clever and persistent. And while she is indefatigable, we never quite see what drives her, the AP writes.
She gets great help from her attentive editor Norman Warne, played by McGregor beneath tailored suits and a very jaunty mustache. But his interest in her turns out to be more than just professional: He harbors a secret crush, one Beatrix is surprised to find she reciprocates, having long since sworn off marriage. (Her ambitious society mother, played by Barbara Flynn, is obsessed with finding her a proper, wealthy suitor, which in no way interests Beatrix herself. Noonan, meanwhile, has fun with the absurdity of the tried-and-true, bad-first-date montage.)
Beatrix also finds a kindred spirit and quick friendship with Norman's sister, Millie, played with intelligence, quick wit and great spark by Emily Watson.
With their support, she turns out books including "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," which would go on to be beloved by children to this day, as well as the adventures of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddleduck and other creatures. Flashbacks to Beatrix's childhood, when she spent summers with her parents and younger brother in England's Lake District, show the earliest stirrings of her fertile imagination.
We also see the beginning of what will become important to Beatrix toward the end of her life: preserving the land in this splendidly rural area, its endless meadows and rolling green hills all photographed with picture-postcard perfection. As Beatrix and Norman start to talk of marriage, which her mother disapproves of because she thinks Norman is beneath them, Beatrix dreams of bringing her future husband to this treasured place.
A tragedy (which Noonan depicts rather abruptly) prevents that from happening, and it takes "Miss Potter" in a sharply dark direction. But ultimately it makes Beatrix a stronger woman; watching her come into her own on many levels at once is a joy, and it reveals her as more than just the creator of "bunnies in jackets with brass buttons," as one publisher so disdainfully puts it.
"Miss Potter," a Weinstein Co. release, runs 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
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