Miss Potter

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/05/07 00:34:52

"Not The Big-Screen Version Of WB's 2006 Year-End Stockholder Review"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Imagine if you will that someone out there had the bright idea to do a weekly half-hour television series on the life and times of Beatrix Potter, the author of “Peter Rabbit” and other beloved children’s classics, only to discover after producing a number of episodes that no network was especially interested in broadcasting such a thing. Now imagine that instead of simply using the entire thing as a write-off, the producers decided to recoup their losses by taking a few of the already-shot episodes and cobbling them together into a ersatz feature film in the grand tradition of “Master Ninja” or the old “Battlestar Galactica” movie. If such a thing were to exist, I suspect that it would wind up looking and feeling a lot like “Miss Potter,” a seriously disjointed biopic on Potter’s personal and professional life that desperately yearns to be another “Finding Neverland” but winds up as an anemic nothing of a film that is as lifeless as it is well-meaning and earnest and boy, is it well-meaning and earnest.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Beatrix (Renee Zellweger), a young woman whose fascination with creating magical worlds with her imagination and paintbrushes and disinclination to marry any man of the proper social background has made her a pariah in the eyes of her disapproving mother. After completing her first work, “Peter Rabbit,” she takes it around to various publishers and discovers that no one is interested in spending the time and effort on putting out a mere children’s book–especially one written by a woman and especially one written by a woman whose status as a first-time author does not prevent her from making a series of specific technical request concerning the publication details that make Stanley Kubrick seem like an easygoing, go-with-the-flow creative type by comparison. Finally, one company decides to take a chance on it, mostly because it will allow Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), the youngest son of the family that owns the firm, to get his feet wet in the business on a project that no one expects will do any business in the first place.

To everyone’s surprise, Beatrix not only winds up with a best-selling book but finds that Norman’s interest towards does not relate exclusively to her stories. Their love deepens and Norman eventually asks her to marry him. Sadly, Beatrix’s mother is aghast at the thought of her daughter marrying a common tradesmen and forbids the union. Eventually, Beatrix strikes a bargain with them–she will spend the summer in the country with them and away from Norman and if she still feels the same towards him when she returns, she can marry him. Without going into too much detail, all I will say is that her engagement ends tragically. Later, the grieving Beatrix, who has lost the will to create, retreats to the country and discovers that all the local farms are being sold off to greedy developers and she pledges to use her now-vast fortune to buy up as many of them as she can in order to preserve them. Happily for her, she also discovers that a childhood acquaintance (Lloyd Owen) has grown into a hunky barrister who can help get through all that grief stuff in addition to aiding her in her purchases.

“Miss Potter” is one of those movies that is so gentle and good-natured in its conception that it almost dares you to say something nasty about it. I guess I will have to take that dare because it is so restrained and well-mannered that it almost makes you want to scream. The narrative, as I mentioned earlier, is strangely disjointed (especially the conservation bent it takes in the last third) and none of the various plot threads are particularly compelling–basically, Potter writes some books, gets rich, tells off her mom, loves and loses one guy, buys a lot of real estate and finds another guy. I’m not saying that an interesting film can’t be made from such material but this one isn’t it. Instead, “Miss Potter” is one of those period films that is so conscious of the fact that it is a period film that all the energy has been sucked out of it–everyone seems to move in a stilted manner that feels like they are more concerned about breaking an expensive prop than in conveying any semblance of messy real-life existence.

If the surroundings of the film suggest the interiors of an especially tony museum, the actors inhabiting them give off the aura of less-than-inspired high-schoolers trying and failing to show their dramatic skills. Renee Zellweger is usually a live wire who perks up even the most lethargic of vehicles with her sheer force of personality but she never finds the right groove as Beatrix Potter–we never get any real sense of passion or intensity regarding her work, her love life or her commitment to environmental conservation. More surprising is the fact that even though she and Ewan McGregor made for an exciting screen couple in the amusing 2003 pastiche “Down With Love,” their pairing this time around strikes zero sparks–the singular emotion that you get from them is a vague sense of discomfort from their presumably itchy clothing. The only performance that makes any real impression is Emily Watson’s turn as Norman’s fiesty sister but that is because the role has been developed as such an obvious crowd-pleaser of a turn that it would take the world’s worst actress–which Watson most definitely isn’t–to fail to make it work.

Aside from a few charming moments in which director Chris Noonan (making his first film since 1995's wonderful “Babe”) brings Potter’s characters to life via animation while still retaining the look and feel of the original still-life images, “Miss Potter” is a fundamentally blah film from start to finish. I will admit, though, that a film like this will be like catnip for audiences who simply want to see an adult-oriented film that does not contain any graphic sex or violence or any foul language. If you are one of those people, you might want to disregard everything that I have said up until now and give this film a look. However, if you are one of those people who base their moviegoing decisions on the elements that are in the film (such as an intriguing plot or characters) instead of the elements that aren’t, you should probably give this one a pass.

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