Saturday, January 06, 2007

Review - Miss Potter

Maybe it’s all down to the unexpected success of Finding Neverland - the twee JM Barrie biopic which charmed its way to a number of Oscar nominations in 2004 - or perhaps it has something to do with a young wizard recently making the name Potter very fashionable among both literary and cinematic circles. In truth, it’s hard to see any real reason for this tepid film version of Beatrix Potter’s life to exist. It tells a very uninteresting story in a very uninteresting way, and it’s one of those films which begins to recede in your memory even while you watch it. After the wonderful imagination and heart on show in 1995’s near-flawless Babe, this is a resoundingly disappointing return to directing from Australian filmmaker Chris Noonan.

Miss Potter tells the story of Beatrix (Renée Zellweger), the woman whose tales of anthropomorphised woodland creatures have become some of the best-loved children’s books of all time. Here we see Beatrix taking those first, unsteady steps to fame, and the film opens with her pitching her idea to an pair of publishing brothers who seem less than enthusiastic. But they surprisingly decide to take Potter on, with the intention of palming this silly “bunny book” off on their younger brother Norman (Ewan McGregor), a seemingly naïve young man who is trying to break into the business. Norman sees much more in The Tale of Peter Rabbit than his older brothers do though, and soon enough he starts to see something in the author herself, with a romance quickly blossoming. However, this relationship greatly disappoints Potter’s parents, who can’t bear the idea of their daughter marrying a tradesman.

The conflict between Beatrix and her parents over Norman’s suitability as a husband is just about the only hint of drama in this vapid picture, and even at 92 minutes
Miss Potter feels rather bereft of incident. Frankly, the life of Beatrix Potter isn’t the most riveting story ever told - she came from a wealthy family, wrote some best-selling books, became even more wealthy, and then retired to the countryside. Perhaps recognising the paucity of drama in this tale, Miss Potter’s writer Richard Maltby Jr. tries to focus on the chaste romance between the central pair, but this resolutely uninteresting relationship never sparks into life, and there’s no real emotional impact when tragedy strikes.

But the biggest problem
Miss Potter faces is an unfortunate case of miscasting in the central role, with Renée Zellweger completely out of place as the writer. Her horribly mannered performance is full of self-consciously ‘cute’ tics and gestures, and the usual Zellweger caveats also apply here. Her lines are all delivered in that croaky, whispery tone of voice; and she is constantly pulling faces, squinting and grimacing as if she has just swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. Distractingly, the woman who have been perfect for the part is often standing right next to Zellweger, with Emily Watson bringing charm and wit to her role as Norman’s sister and Potter’s closest friend. One can only imagine how much more palatable the film would have been if she had been cast as the titular character.

Beyond the lead, however, there are some choice pieces of character acting on show here. Ewan McGregor is funny and likeable as the rather timid Norman, and it’s good to see him on such engaging form after a series of underwhelming displays. There is also fine support from Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson as Potter’s parents, with the magnificent facial hair sported by Paterson proving particularly entertaining (it’s a pretty great movie for facial hair all round). Another performance of note comes from Matyelok Gibbs as the old woman who acts as Beatrix’s silent, unsmiling chaperone; in the film’s first half she’s a constant presence in the background of the action, often providing some fine deadpan comedy with her reactions to Norman’s courtship of Beatrix.

But we can only derive so much pleasure from fun performances, and the lack of substance to Miss Potter is ultimately wearing. Chris Noonan’s handling of the story is mostly unadventurous, allowing the beautifully-shot countryside to do all the work, but he does inject one or two brief flourishes into the film. At a couple of moments in
Miss Potter the characters Beatrix is drawing seem to come to life on the page, wiggling their noses and hopping about, and this touch pays dividends in a neat scene later in the picture; when tragedy has affected Beatrix’s life and her cartoons start to run away from the shadow of death as she tries to draw them. This is the only moment in the movie which feels fresh, and this brief element of darkness comes as a welcome break from the insufferably sweet goings on elsewhere. Unfortunately, the gambit of allowing Beatrix’s creations to move about also leads to the writer admonishing them for doing so - and the sight of the character saying “Peter, stop that!” or “Flopsy, behave” only serves to make Miss Potter look a little, well, potty.

Miss Potter drifts by painlessly enough for a while, but it loses any semblance of forward momentum in the final third, with endless scenes of Beatrix wandering around the Lake District and buying up various pieces of land which she later donated to the National Trust. The film drizzles to a close and only leaves one wondering what the point of it all was. Sure, Beatrix Potter’s books have delighted generations of children, and she did great preservation work for the National Trust; but does every famous person automatically deserve to have their life played out on screen, even when their story is as bland and incident-free as this? Miss Potter may please those filmgoers who enjoy pretty, undemanding movies which don’t spring any surprises, but this empty biopic left me cold; and anyone looking for a Potter to provide a bit of fun at the cinema should probably just wait for Harry.