Miss Potter (review)

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Up with Love, I Think…

I’d forgotten till long after I stepped out of Miss Potter — with a lilt in my stride and half suspecting I was seeing waistcoat-clad bunnies out of the corner of my eye — that Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor had played much the same enchanting game of romantic taboo-busting in 2003’s Down with Love. I was and remain a much bigger fan of that deliciously goofy ersatz-1960s flick than perhaps its airiness deserves simply because it is so sneakily clever about what it takes for a woman to make a stand as a human being without denying herself love in a culture that expects women to be all-consumed, and happily so, by marriage.
So it is again for Zellweger (Cinderella Man, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) as Beatrix Potter, author of the beloved tales of Peter Rabbit and his gentle animal friends. I’m not an enormous fan of Zellweger; I generally find her overmannered and self-conscious — but she brings a flinty steel to Potter, a woman with the faraway imagination of an overgrown child who simultaneously has the enormous backbone to stand up to her status-frenzied mother (the always wonderful Barbara Flynn), a society matron who keeps trying to foist her daughter off on an eligible gentleman — any eligible gentleman — before she’s so old no one will want her. Zellweger’s Potter will have none of it: “I shan’t marry — I shall draw,” she declares, scandalizing her mother, though her father (the very fine Bill Paterson: Kingdom of Heaven, Sunshine) is more supportive. I kept feeling that there was a story there, that her gadabout father, a shiftless gentleman of old money, was suddenly regretting not pursuing some wild dream of his own and was now contenting himself to live vicariously through his daring daughter, but Richard Maltby Jr.’s script keeps skipping away from anything of such consequence or depth. Granted, the script skips away from such things in so blithe a manner that you may miss the glimpses of those roads not taken that I saw, but they’re there anyway, and punch holes in the foundation of the film.

But then there is Ewan McGregor (Stay, The Island), his Norman Warne a bit of an affable oddball himself, the youngest brother at the family publishing concern that Beatrix convinces to produce her little picture books of the adventures of Peter Rabbit. A nuisance to his siblings, Norman is foisted off on the “bunny book” project, but he sees the promise in them and welcomes what his brothers would dismiss as nonsense, and even more so when he meets Beatrix and is instantly, shyly smitten. It’s a slow ramping up of Beatrix and Norman’s romance, genuine feeling that surprises both of them — and shocks her mother; he’s a tradesman! she sniffs — and it’s lovely, particularly as Beatrix also finds, in Norman’s sister, Millie (Emily Watson: The Proposition, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, just delightful) a female soulmate, a happily unmarried woman who can commiserate with Beatrix over the constant uphill battles women face: for respect, for self-determination, and even in allowing themselves the freedom to find new flexibility in their own hard-fought philosophies when love requests it.

And yet… Despite its presentation of a feminist role model, of which there are too few, despite its tender portrait of passionate hearts drawn together unexpectedly, Miss Potter is as lightweight as bunny fluff itself. The entire endeavor feels more prosaic and less substantial than we might expect from a biopic of so important a literary figure — it’s not too much to dub her the inventor of modern children’s literature — as well as one of the grand figures of British conservationism: she bears enormous responsibility for the ongoing preservation of the rural beauty of England’s Lake District. (Much of the film was shot there, and it is gorgeous to look at.) There’s a lot to be said for charm and spirit, which Miss Potter deploys with clipped grace and a determination not to be cutesy. And that’s an especial achievement on the part of director Chris Noonan — whose last film was 1995’s whimsical Babe — for he draws us deep into Potter’s imagination via her delicate watercolor drawings, allowing them to spring to life with a wink or a jig when only Potter, with her writer’s dreamy eye, is looking on.

Magic flares in those moments… but then it wisps away, leaving nothing but the impression of a memory and the shadow of consequence. There’s much that’s pleasant in Miss Potter, but not much that’s ultimately very remarkable.

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