In an effort to give their younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor) a project to keep him busy now that he has joined the family publishing house, the older Warne brothers agree to publish Miss Beatrix Potter’s (Renee Zellweger) first children’s book. They don’t expect the book about a young rabbit who wears a blue coat and gets into mischief to sell well, but they need to keep Norman busy. Beatrix is beside herself; as a single woman in Edwardian London, still living with her parents in her early 30s, she suspects this endeavor may provide her with a small measure of freedom, personal, financial, any type of freedom. But she also has very specific ideas about how the book should be published. As they work together, Norman surprises her with his ideas for the book and they become close. After the book is published, Beatrix is surprised to learn there will be a second book; “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” is selling well. No problem, because she has many stories. One day at lunch, she meets the rest of Norman’s family, including his sister, Millie (Emily Watson) and the two women become fast friends. Norman proposes, but Beatrix’s parents object to the marriage proposal. After much argument, they agree to let Beatrix marry Norman provided they wait until the end of the summer; the Potters spend every summer at their country home. As Beatrix leaves for the country side, Norman rushes to the train station to say goodbye. Beatrix kisses her soaked fiancée; he forgot his umbrella and a rainstorm has drenched his clothing. He’ll catch his… They are only too happy to wait. After all, what can happen in one summer?
“Miss Potter” is a perfectly pleasant diversion for a few hours. Not a ground breaking film, it tells the story of one of the best selling children’s authors of all time and hints a bit at her inspiration and life. But it merely hints. This is a film for Anglophiles who will love the scenery, the depiction of Edwardian London, the accents, the tea.
But it also represents another entry in a current trend of British Cinema. Basically, this film is the British equivalent of an American studio release; plot points here, here and here, pleasant, solid if uninspired performances, light historical biography. It simply doesn’t push the envelope like the great British, independent and foreign films we are used to and because of this, is a safer bet at the box office. I have nothing against a film biography, but give us a hint why the person is unusual, film worthy. The film’s one concession to this is to show Beatrix’s drawings come to life; they are her friends, providing companionship well into adult hood.
I’m not sure the film can even be considered a British production. Produced by and starring Renee Zellweger and co-produced by Phoenix Productions and the Weinstein Company, a lot of American money went into this film. They clearly saw a market and a way to tap into this audience. But because the remainder of the cast is British, the film is set in England, it is directed by an Aussie and partially funded by a British television channel, I guess it qualifies. It just seems calling “Potter” a ‘British’ film is a calculated attempt to get the film more Oscar attention then it deserves. You know, much like Will Smith starring in “The Pursuit of Happyness” is a calculated attempt to get an Oscar nomination for the popular movie star. Oh, wait….
I really wish Zellweger would give up her efforts to convince everyone of what a serious actress she is and return to making the romantic comedies she used to make. You know the ones without the British accent? Okay, “Bridget Jones’ Diary” was cute, but Renee, you’re no Meryl Streep. You’re an AMERICAN, play some Americans. Stay away from the faux British accent for a while. Remind us why we came to love (or at least like) you in the first place.
As Beatrix Potter, Zellweger is good. She convincingly portrays the writer’s love of animals, her drawings, her books. When the animals come to life, her eyes light up and she clearly enjoys their companionship. But when she is interacting with humans, she seems to have two facial expressions. One of these, her face scrunched up and her mouth forming a half smile seems to be meant to convey both happiness and sadness. Frankly, she looks like she is suffering from hemorrhoids. The other facial expression is a blank look, which isn’t used that often. I’m sure the point is to show how awkward she is with humans, but it doesn’t work. Once she forms a relationship with Norman and Millie, his sister, she shouldn’t appear awkward towards them, but she does. A third facial expression would have helped.
Ewan McGregor’s Norman is cute, charming and very gung ho. As the male equivalent of Beatrix, a bit awkward, a bit shy, a bit restrained, they seem a good fit. He also seems to be a more complex character despite his smaller amount of screen time. Norman clearly feels a bit intimidated in the company business and is very satisfied when he succeeds, proving he can contribute to the family business. It is also interesting to watch McGregor portray Norman wrestling with the rules of the era.
Emily Watson plays Millie. A forward woman who, like Beatrix, is single and in her early 30s, she quickly announces “I have decided we are to be great friends” after she meets Beatrix. Her premonition proves accurate, becoming a friend, and confidant to the author, providing advice to her new best friend. I get the sense Millie was more than just a single woman in her early 30s and may have been slightly attracted to Beatrix. But this isn’t explored, probably deemed too controversial for a film about a woman who believes her drawings of animals come to life. Nonetheless, she provides an ear for Beatrix and later a shoulder to cry on. And remains very single.
The film is best when depicting the Edwardian society Beatrix inhabits. Even though she is a grown woman, because she is single she must be accompanied everywhere by an escort, an older woman in her mid 60s, who wears nothing but black. When she returns from a visit to the printers, her mother can barely believe it when a smudge of ink is discovered on a blouse, so beneath her daughter. Beatrix manages to invite Norman and Millie to the family’s Christmas party and they blend in well with all of the society folks her mother is so desperate to impress. Throughout the evening, Beatrix and Norman play a sly game of cat and mouse trying to earn a few moments of time alone.
“Miss Potter” is a good, if unremarkable portrait of a woman with some unique talent. Now if only the filmmakers had some unique talent to use on this project, we might have a more memorable film on our hands.