Beatrix Potter wrote dozens of books with titles like The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Appley Dapply’s Nursery Rhymes. Released at the turn of the last century, these stories about mischievous animals illustrated with Potter’s charming watercolors were as incredibly popular with kids as Harry Potter is today.
Miss Potter, a new movie starring Oscar winner Renee Zellweger as the author, focuses on Potter’s personal life, which was tumultuous as her books were placid. Buckling against 19th century mores the headstrong writer chose not to marry until age 47, preferring the company of her imaginary friends to real life. The movie leads us through the publishing of her first book, her battles with overbearing social climbing parents, an engagement to her first fiancé, played by Ewan McGregor, and her subsequent retreat to the English countryside. What emerges is an interesting, but incomplete portrait of the legendary writer.
Zellweger is a ringer for Potter, pulls off a convincing English accent, and succeeds in making Potter’s eccentricities seem plausible, but for all the technical aspects of the performance there isn’t much warmth here. Zellweger’s stiff upper lip hides any real emotion, and the few flashes of personality that find their way past her stern façade only hint at the reservoir of emotion underneath.
Overall the movie is well constructed, if a little incomplete. Director Chris Noonan, whose last film, Babe, was eleven years ago, shows us the major events in Potter’s life, but lacking is the passion. It makes for a decent family film, although I doubt that kids will be too taken with the love story and the English reserve, but feels like less than the sum of its parts. Potter was a 19th century rebel who championed the ecology and used her vast wealth to preserve 4000 acres of farmland. She was an active and shrewd marketer of her own books and even did some scientific research on lichens that, one hundred years after she wrote it, was given credence by the British Linnean Society. Only mildly engaging, this stiff Masterpiece Theatre treatment of her life doesn’t do justice to Beatrix Potter or her legacy.