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Miss Potter movie review

Children’s literature enthusiasts have been anticipating the opening of Miss Potter with a mixture of amusement, dread, and hope. Amusement that anyone would think Potter’s life was exciting enough for a film, dread that she could be misrepresented as glaringly as she was by her first biographer, and hope that a wider audience might finally understand there was more to Potter than a few stories about dressed bunnies.

Although Richard Maltby’s script does its best to spice up Potter’s life, embellishing and rearranging as one must for this kind of film, the ninety-three minutes pass at a leisurely pace. The only thrilling moment is an early chase scene involving a rabbit and a vegetable garden (sound familiar?). Beatrix’s relationship with her first editor, Norman Warne, provides the story’s central arc and leads to several satisfying moments involving details of book production, a befuddled chaperone, an aborted marriage proposal, and squabbles with parents who strenuously disapproved of her marrying “into trade.”

Thankfully, Potter mere and père are not shown as the one-sided villains that early biographies presented, and BBC stalwarts Barbara Flynn and Bill Patterson do justice to the complexity of their situation as social climbers who want the best for a daughter they do not understand. Ewan McGregor has a light touch as the diffident but enthusiastic Norman, his huge mustache helping to obliterate memories of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Emily Watson plays Norman’s sister Millie with startling energy. As Beatrix’s radical and forward-thinking new friend, she becomes the catalyst in the movie for Potter’s decision to take charge of her own life.

Director Chris Noonan understands that Potter’s early life was a seesaw of careful propriety in London and liberating holidays in the country. Since most of her time was spent in town, Beatrix created her own liberation by drawing and painting her many pets. The cinematography accentuates this dichotomy, showing us breathtaking vistas of English mountains and sensuous close-ups of pencils, brushes, and paints. The contrast to stifling London interiors bursting with furniture and knickknacks is palpable.

So much for the good bits. After seeing the trailer a few months ago, I became worried about Renée Zellweger’s tautly pert grimaces and borderline schizophrenic conversations with the animals in her drawings. As everyone probably knows by now, the drawings in this movie are intermittently animated, hence the involvement of Chris Noonan, whose last film was the expertly animated Babe (1995). The mostly middle-aged audience with whom I saw the film loved the animated sequences, but I have to say they made me squirm. Some subtle animation might have been effective, provided it didn’t call the artist’s sanity into question, but in nearly every case this animation was playing for broad laughs.

So just when we children’s lit folks thought we might get a little respect, we’re tossed back into the sweet and adorable niche. Even with Potter as a model — a serious-minded, businesslike book creator if there ever was one — we get the stereotypical kiddie book author: a lonely, batty woman who draws dressed animals and moons over these drawings, calling them her friends. The real Miss Potter wouldn’t have been caught dead doing this.

Last winter there was a lot of buzz about all the research Renée Zellweger was doing, reading masses of books and going out of her way to see original art. With such a serious and talented actress in the title role, there was reason to hope. Sadly, her performance is curiously uneven. When she’s not talking about her stories or chatting with her drawings, she makes a likeable, heartbreakingly earnest Beatrix. But put her in children’s book mode and it’s as if she’s in a different movie. Her face contorts and she becomes Whimsical.

It could be worse. In the end the audience correctly learns that Potter had some admirable qualities: she finally stood up to her parents, overcame a huge romantic disappointment, and found independence and happiness. What doesn’t come across, though, is the seriousness with which she attacked her plan to create children’s books, her artistic integrity in working on those books, and her single-minded determination to make the most of her success. The Miss Potter we meet is not a quiet intellect with a dry sense of humor, but an emotionally needy woman with a bad case of the Cutes.

To a certain extent, this is a problem faced by all biopics about writers and artists. There is no way to serve both the subject and the audience because the most intriguing conflict is internal, within the creative process. Still, in their movies Jackson Pollack and Vermeer got to paint, period. Potter has to compete with winking rabbits and ducks that shake their tushies.

More about Beatrix Potter

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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