'Miss Potter,' Minus the Magic

Renee Zellweger plays the title role and Ewan McGregor is her love interest in
Renee Zellweger plays the title role and Ewan McGregor is her love interest in "Miss Potter," directed by Chris Noonan. (By Alex Bailey -- The Weinstein Company)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

"Miss Potter," which catches Renee Zellweger playing English again, reminds us how rare it is to find truly satisfying movies about the storytellers of our childhoods.

"Finding Neverland," one of those precious few, not only retold the affecting story of J.M. Barrie, it made us look at "Peter Pan" with renewed appreciation. But other films don't. The best thing about 1952's "Hans Christian Andersen" was Frank Loesser's songs. Fantasy epic-meister Terry Gilliam seemed ideal to direct "The Brothers Grimm" in 2005, but squandered the opportunity with a torturous, absurd drama. We're almost grateful no one has tried to make definitive chronicles of Walt Disney, L. Frank Baum and Scheherazade.

Which all makes it especially disappointing to sit through "Miss Potter," an earnest but inert account of the private life of children's author Beatrix Potter. It's a great pity, for Potter -- creator of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck -- makes an intriguing subject. She was the J.K. Rowling of her day -- perhaps even bigger. In 1902, when Potter's debut book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," became a runaway bestseller, she was an independent woman, unmarried and conducting her own financial affairs, long before that became commonplace.

"Miss Potter," which Chris Noonan directed from a script by Richard Maltby Jr., shows Beatrix's rise to independence only in individual terms. We learn about the restrictive household in which she lived; her wealthy, conservative and snobbish parents; and how she took comfort in the animals she befriends, adopts and anthropomorphizes in her stories. When Beatrix falls in love with publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), her parents object to the union, since Norman works for a living. And it takes becoming a celebrity author for Beatrix to achieve their grudging respect.

If the movie is respectful and factually informative, it's also tightly corseted -- in dramatic terms. (At its worst, "Miss Potter" feels like it ought to be an episode of some series called "Profiles of Powerful Women: Part 7.") The dialogue and the performances are all too often on the nose; we're made to understand everything on the surface with little subtext. Characters' conversations feel like printed statements rather than true human utterances. The camera doesn't move very much, either, seeming to anticipate the smaller television frame it'll soon have to accommodate. The general stolidness comes as a surprise, given Noonan's spirited direction of the 1995 family-friendly hit "Babe."

Zellweger is certainly likable as Beatrix, but as an upper-class English lady of a century ago, she enunciates her words as if sucking a lemon -- you almost start to wonder if you've stumbled into a satire of "Masterpiece Theatre." Though she again used Barbara Berkery, the dialect coach who trained her for "Bridget Jones's Diary," Zellweger's forced delivery makes us feel the strain. What further detracts from her star turn is the presence of Emily Watson. As Millie Warne, the sister of Beatrix's intended, she's so lively (and it helps that she actually is English), it's hard not to consider the wisdom of a casting switcheroo. Unless you're also considering the bottom line: Zellweger sells more tickets as an Englishwoman than most Englishwomen.

"Miss Potter," frankly, could have benefited from a broader perspective. While Potter quietly built her own personal empire, for example, the suffragists were fighting for women's causes on a larger scale. Potter was a rich woman at 37, but she'd be in her 50s before British women could vote -- even then, they had to have property qualifications and be older than 30. And while Potter sketched little bunnies and looked forward to her summer trips to the Lake District, Emmeline Pankhurst braved jail terms and hunger strikes to draw attention to universal suffrage. And in 1913, the year that Potter married, Pankhurst's fellow activist Emily Davison threw herself in front of a racehorse at the Epsom Derby to become a political martyr. Surely Potter would have heard about, and responded to, this very public event. Had the filmmakers included more of the broader social climate, instead of just focusing on the insular world of Potter's family, audiences could better appreciate the bigger issues that affected her life. In movies about storytellers, surely, we're searching for deeper significance than the tale immediately before us.

Miss Potter(92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for brief mild profanity.

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