Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter
Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne
Emily Watson as Millie Warne
Barbara Flynn as Helen Potter
Bill Paterson as Rupert Potter
Mayelok Gibbs as Miss Wiggin
Lloyd Owen as William Heelis
Turn of the century England was not a time or place particularly suited for a woman of any social standing to try and make their own way in life, so it was more than out of the ordinary for Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger) not only to try and publish her own children’s stories, but to be wildly successful at it, eventually becoming one of the most popular children’s authors of all time.
“Miss Potter” is a biopic of manners in the style of just about every other film set in turn of the century (or later) England, and it suffers a bit from the rules of the genre, which were already long in the tooth in 1900. ‘Catch your death of cold’ isn’t just a saying in these stories, it’s a way of life… death… whatever… and “Miss Potter” is no exception.
Drama is created not so much by what people say and do as what they don’t say and do. Which is as good a way of doing it as any, Merchant-Ivory certainly got plenty of mileage out of the idea, but often as not leaves the characters more approximations of people than actual people, a problem inherent in film to begin with and only exacerbated by the intentional lack of specifics.
Being about a beloved children’s author, “Miss Potter” also takes on some of the attributes of children’s films as well, particularly their sense of whimsy, which in the wrong hands can easily lead to saccharine overload. With “Babe” on his resume, director Chris Noonan would seem an ideal choice for this type of material, and indeed he shows the same eye for mixing reality and fantasy without ever going overboard with either. The moments when Beatrix’s creations come fleetingly to life are majestic in their simplicity, and never over done. Still, some of the early material – notably Beatrix’s voiceover – tends towards the banal, though that may have less to do with the director than with his star.
Zellweger is serviceable enough, but maybe just a touch too sweet and self-assured, even in her moments of self-doubt. There also seems to be some confusion exactly how to characterize Beatrix in the film. She introduced as an eccentric, to put it kindly, more comfortable around her imaginary friends than real people. She only begins to open up after she meets her publisher-cum-fiancé Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) and his feisty sister, Millie (Emily Watson), who has a singular vision for a single woman of turn of the century England. Unfortunately, Millie is actually much more interesting than Beatrix, and it’s hard not to think that Watson probably would have made a better Miss Potter.
Eventually, Norman works up the courage to ask Beatrix’s father (Bill Paterson) for her hand in marriage, only to be rebuffed because he is a tradesman and seen as beneath her station. The film touches briefly on the class divide, very briefly. As with most of the conflicts that pop throughout, they no sooner rear their heads than they are put down. Beatrix has her problems, but nothing ever seems particularly pressing, not even late in the film when she suffers what seems to be a devastating loss, but quickly gets herself together again in time to become a pioneering conservationist.
And that is “Miss Potter’s” biggest flaw – it’s pointless. A great deal of skill and imagination has gone into it, but it’s not ultimately about anything, not even on a plot level. There are no real conflicts to be overcome and it doesn’t ever really build to anything. So gentle is story that when the credits do roll it comes as something of a surprise. Surely that can’t be all of it? Just when it seemed it might actually be going somewhere.
“Miss Potter” is too well crafted to actually be bad, but it’s too light to be better than good. An entertaining trifle, but a trifle nonetheless.