|Miss Potter (2007)
Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson
Director: Chris Noonan
I can’t say that I particularly care one way or the other for Renée Zellweger in the real world, but I fall head over heels in love with her every time I see her on the big screen. Say what you will about female leading ladies, box office draw, bankability, Jennifer Aniston, blah blah bling bling blah. It doesn’t mean a hill of beans to me. Renée Zellweger is the most reliable young actress in Hollywood because she has It, that mysterious but unmistakable quality that transcends all of the things that are calculated into today’s moviemaking. The woman, quite simply, brings movies to life, and more often than not, a movie is better solely for having her in it. Count “Miss Potter” as an extremely lucky benefactor to her star quality. The story itself is a bit scattershot, acting like a comedy one minute, a romance the next, and a tragedy soon after. But Zellweger single-handedly saves the day, thanks to that It of hers. If she could bottle her It up and sell it, she’d be a billionaire.
Zellweger plays Beatrix Potter, a stubborn but talented spinster (i.e. over 30 and unmarried) who suffers the chauvinistic ways of turn-of-the-century England poorly. Her mother (Barbara Flynn) wants to marry her off to some perfectly fine gentlemen (read: rich boor), but Beatrix would rather make her own money as an artist. The publishing company Frederick Warne & Company gives her a small deal to make a children’s book, thinking it won’t sell any copies. But Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), the younger brother of the company’s principals, teams up with Beatrix in order to make her “bunny book” a big hit (that would be the mega-selling “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”). Norman and Beatrix eventually turn their working relationship into a personal one when Norman proposes to Beatrix. But Beatrix’s parents object to their daughter marrying into the trade class, and ask that Beatrix and Norman keep their engagement a secret until summer’s end. Beatrix agrees, but soon regrets it when tragedy strikes.
Oh, and let us not forget one very important thing about “Miss Potter”: it is directed by the long-absent Chris Noonan (“Babe”), which means this Jane Austen-style tale of romance and deception contains a much-needed dash of whimsy. Many of Beatrix’s creations come to life even as she’s drawing them (Jemimah Puddle-Duck’s reaction when she first sees Norman Warne is beyond cute), and while the effect is abandoned a tad too soon, it is not forgotten. In fact, you get the sense that there was a more serious chunk of Beatrix’s story that was about to unfold, but Noonan thought better of it and kept things as simple as possible, even though it meant leaving in some jarring shifts in mood and tempo.
There is certainly a laundry list of women who are both better looking and more British (which is to say, British) than Renée Zellweger, yet this movie does not work with a Kate Beckinsale, or a Rachel Weisz, or a Sienna Miller in the role of Beatrix. Beatrix, in their hands, would be quirky but cute. Zellweger’s Beatrix, on the other hand, is complicated and bold first, quirky but cute second, and the distinction cannot be underestimated. Zellweger also benefits from sharing the screen with McGregor and Emily Watson (as McGregor’s sister Millie), who respectively know a thing or two about star power and the subtleties of acting.
The multiplex masses may not have been begging for a light-hearted period piece, but not only did they get one in “Miss Potter,” they got a damn good one to boot. Quoth the Scissor Sisters, take your mama out to see this one. She’ll love it.
The single-disc release of “Miss Potter” isn’t anything to get excited over, but then again, neither was the film. The audio commentary (where we learn about Cate Blanchett’s initial involvement as the lead) should have been the highlight of the DVD, but director Chris Noonan speaks so rarely that it seems almost unnecessary. The rest of the disc includes a boring rehash of Beatrix’s life (“The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter), a 22-minute making-of featurette (“The Making of a Real-Life Fairy Tale”), and a music video for “When You Taught Me How to Dance.”