Though set in turn-of-the-century England, the bio picture of English illustrator and writer Beatrix Potter is, as the title Miss Potter suggests, the story of an archetypal film singleton.
Australian director Chris Noonan, who infused his 1995 barnyard opus Babe with fairy-dusted bits of whimsy, tries a similar tack in his sweet but conceptually disappointing take on The Tale of Peter Rabbit author. Her exquisitely cute Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle are to literature what Laura Ashley frocks are to fashion and plum pudding is to cuisine: a definitively sugary and comfy, typically British creation.
Dusting off her British accent once again, Renée Zellweger plays Potter as the ambitious but artistically frustrated product of a nouveau riche London family. In Miss Potter's early scenes, Potter spends a lonely childhood escaping a controlling mother (Barbara Flynn) during inspirational summer holidays in the Scottish countryside or the English Lake District. As an adult, Potter rejected her mother's multiple choices for a husband, eventually marrying a suitor of her own choice at age 47. Defying convention, Potter pursues a publisher for her children's books.
Her drive attracts the eye of Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), the youngest brother in family publishing house Frederick Warne & Company, who finds both success and romance with Beatrix. Despite all predictions to the contrary, the adorable picture books, with their child-friendly diminutive size, are a raging success -- the Harry Potters of their day.
Miss Potter is not the typically goth tale of female creativity as a rather lonely and angst-ridden thing seen in tragic takes on literary ladies from Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table to Christine Jeffs' Sylvia. A touch of either film's darkness, though, might have cut through Miss Potter's suffocating preciousness. While there is the occasional whiff of feminist politics at play here, most of the difficulties in Beatrix Potter's life seem to come from her struggle with her controlling mother. In reality, the society at large was deeply resistant to the progress of women. Potter was unable to pursue her studies in science or publish her scientific findings because she was a woman.
While it is undeniable that women are often the choke collar on the progress of their fellow females, by so singularly vilifying Mrs. Potter, the film lets a deeply repressive society off the hook.
Instead, Miss Potter bears a superficiality reminiscent of drearily empowering tales of girlish pluck from Pollyanna to TV's "Little House on the Prairie."
In Noonan's and also Zellweger's vision of Potter, the grown-up Beatrix never loses the dreamy, artificial sweetness of her girl self, and talks to her watercolor bunnies and ducks as if they were living creatures. At various intervals, though not consistently, Noonan expresses Potter's investment in her creations by having her interact with and speak to them. It's a rather simplistic and fluffy-headed way of expressing the artist's point of view and the obsessiveness that often attends artistic creation. The device ends up infantilizing Potter, who, compared with the talking porker of Babe, has far less depth and charm.
In Zellweger's hands, this imaginative woman resisting the straightjacket of Victorian mores comes across as a simpleton and gassy fussbudget. Spastically sunny, her face perpetually trussed up into a goony smile and her eyes smashed into two crescents, Zellweger delivers an unbearably affected vision of Victorian-era womanhood.
Miss Potter does not feel like a film about an actual flesh-and-blood woman, but a stylized, honey-coated vision of the past. A film that should be an inspirational tale of an unruly, unconventional woman is virtually negated by the shallow, saccharine spin both Zellweger and Noonan place on Potter.
Noonan's obvious inspiration for Miss Potter is Marc Forster's Finding Neverland, about another death-haunted turn-of-the-century Anglo writer, J.M. Barrie, who introduced his fantasy character Peter Pan in 1902 (the year of Peter Rabbit's first appearance). Miss Potter is a film that aspires to be Finding Neverland in its treatment of death and creation as an escape from stultifying real life.
But unlike Johnny Depp's Barrie, Zellweger's Potter is not compelling enough of a figure to elicit sympathy when tragedy strikes. Supplemental characters also tend to lack depth, particularly Potter's socially striving mother. With a hairdo as meticulously complicated as needlepoint, her mother plays oppressor to Potter's father, Rupert (Bill Paterson), who stands in the background as Beatrix's silent champion. The exceptions are McGregor and Emily Watson as his spinster sister, Millie -- and the woman you wish Zellweger's Potter could be -- whose lively defiance of the status quo and desire to live a free and independent life breathe necessary humanity into Richard Maltby Jr.'s stale script.
If only Zellweger's thin portrait of a frothy Victorian-era Bridget Jones did half as much.
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