Miss Potter (PG)

ANDREW CLARKE With a spot-on English accent, perfected after two outings as Bridget Jones, Renee Zellweger now tackles Beatrix Potter in this touching look at the life of the children's author and illustrator.

ANDREW CLARKE

It looks as if Renee Zellweger has finally replaced Gwyneth Paltrow as America's most enthusiastic Anglophile. With a spot-on English accent, perfected after two outings as Bridget Jones, she now tackles Miss Potter - a touching look at the life of children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter.

The film, which has been augmented by some carefully-drawn Beatrix Potter style animation, comes across rather like a dream-like fairytale, rather than your standard biopic. With its muted colour palette, its cosy evocation of Edwardian London and the fact that at times Peter Rabbit comes to life, the film conjures up a feeling you are watching a film as Beatrix Potter would have directed it herself.

Director Chris Noonan, who previously gave us the lovely Babe, the story of a talking pig, has made Miss Potter into an utterly charming film. It's great to look at, it's imaginatively shot, the recreation of London and the Lake District in the early 1900s cannot be faulted - yet, at the same time, you never feel really engaged with any of the characters.

Despite assured performances from Zellweger as Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher/suitor Norman Warne you never feel you really get to know anyone. Everyone is still rather an enigma. Norman is very much an enthusiastic young innocent, but nothing more, Beatrix's father (Bill Paterson) is supportive but ineffectual against his wife's (Barbara Flynn) strident opposition to her daughter's unconventional lifestyle.

Understandably, it was shocking for a 30-something woman to still be single in the early 1900s, but this is never articulated. You just get the impression that mum is a bit of a grouch and a snob to boot.

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Because of her privileged background it's hard to identify with Beatrix and her struggle to get published. Although Renee tries hard to bring some depth to the role, Beatrix still comes across as a rather shallow person. She's a wealthy young woman who doesn't need to work to support herself who is almost playing at being an artist and children's author.

The only reason she gets published at all because the family publishing firm she goes to show her work to need a vanity project for their younger brother (McGregor) to attend to when he joins the business.

Beatrix comes across as rather headstrong, but her desire to be published is never a life or death struggle. Her romance with Norman Warne is a chaste and blushing affair rather than a passionate quest. The only drama in this courtship is her mother's snobbish disapproval of the fact that Norman is "trade" rather than aristocracy.

Funnily enough, Miss Potter the movie, rather like Beatrix the woman, only truly comes alive when she moves to the Lake District and starts buying up farmland to prevent it being built on by the property speculators of the time.

While living in the spectacular wilderness she is visited by her friend and Norman's sister Millie, played with wonderful gusto by Emily Watson. Here is a lesson in how to make something out of nothing. There is an old theatrical saying: "There is no such thing as a small part - only small actors", and Emily Watson's bravura performance is proof of this adage.

Zellweger's performance hints at a darker sub-text, but the film never gets round to addressing this. There is no question of Beatrix's artistic talent, but there is a suggestion that she may be suffering from arrested development.

In her adult life she is merely regurgitating stories she dreamed up as a child to entertain her brother. But the fact that her creations still appear real to her at the age of 32 hints at a much more complex movie which may have been more intriguing than this picture book version.

Allied to this is the fact that she is obviously very lonely and isolated by the strict social conventions of the time and doesn't get to really talk to anyone about anything until she meets Millie.

Miss Potter is a good looking movie, with some fine performances from the three leads, the look of the film is superb but the script needs some added depth to really get under the skin of its characters.

 

 

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