The aggressively twee Miss Potter labors mightily to present world-famous children's author Beatrix Potter as a preternaturally free spirit. Like a domesticated dog, she sticks her head out of a hansom cab to feel the wind on her face, and she talks, regularly, to her fictional animals, which she claims are real and her "friends." She's also a defiantly single woman, of a certain age, in 1902 London. That way of life and her publishing success would be enough to establish Potter, without undue hype, as an independent woman, a proto-feminist. So why all the dithering? To try to make a movie out of less-than-scintillating raw material.
It's easy to see how Potter's story, in summary, would pique the interest of writer Richard Maltby, Jr. (who conceived of it as a musical), director Chris Noonan (Babe), and stars Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. Potter's charming artistry and a tragic twist of fate would seem to promise appealing froth and dramatic musculature. But in practice, Zellweger's Potter seems ludicrous: the conceit of her drawings leaping to animated life from time to time (and the business of talking to them) are Hollywood-style mythmaking about the creative process, and the American Zellweger invariably overworks to convince us—yet again—that she's an extraordinary Englishwoman amongst Englishwomen.
McGregor fares better by bringing warmth and light-comic precision to the role of Norman Warne, a junior publisher fobbed off on Potter by his older brothers (his lovely song-and-dance number—"Let Me Teach You How to Dance"—suggests the musical route would have been just the vehicle to pot the story's treacle). The always-welcome Emily Watson plays Warne's spinster sister Millie, confidant to Potter, and screen vet Bill Paterson plays Beatrix's supportive pop (for fun, count the twinkly smiles all around). Barbara Flynn is suitable as the uptight Mrs. Potter, but the less said about Lucy Boynton (as young Beatrix), the better.
Attempts at substance include discussion of marriage (Beatrix and Millie share an aversion to domestic enslavement but a desire for companionship), classism (much is made of love-interest Warne being a tradesman), and "runaway" development in the English countryside (Potter was a forward-thinking conservationist with her publishing spoils). And yet, the film's most interesting scene may be the one depicting turn-of-the-century printing techniques as Potter's once-dismissed "bunny book" flips through the press.
While trying to resist outright corn, Noonan seizes every opportunity to prove Potter's imagination, as in a montage of suitors seen from her point-of-view as a sheep, pig, and horse. Though the film's paces are pleasant, Miss Potter is for pushovers seeking warm fuzzies and no challenges after a trying holiday season.
[For Groucho's interview with Chris Noonan, click here.]