The last time Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor were paired
on screen was in the dreadful romantic comedy
DOWN WITH LOVE.
Since they exhibited almost no chemistry and that film was a box-office
failure, it is perhaps a little surprising that someone had the idea
to re-team them in a period biography -- replete with romance -- about
the children's author Beatrix Potter. As it turns out (at least according
to McGregor), it was Zellweger who sent him the script. He had enjoyed
their last outing (even if the results weren't stellar) so he happily signed
on. Perhaps under the guidance of Chris Noonan, whose last feature was
the instant classic
BABE, and who has been curiously absent from
filmmaking, the actors would fare better.

  MISS POTTER marks the screenwriting debut of Broadway lyricist,
librettist and director Richard Maltby Jr and from what I read, the original
intention was to make it as a musical. That idea was jettisoned for a
more straightforward approach and Maltby has taken a few liberties with
her life (as well as those of others depicted in the movie) and fashioned
a rather sweet, old-fashioned piece.

  As she has proven in the Bridget Jones movies, Zellweger can
muster a serviceable British accent. Cast as Beatrix Potter, she portrays
the author as something of a shy, almost naive woman, more content
to pass time with her imaginary friends (that would be Peter Rabbit,
Jemima Puddle-Duck, and the rest) which she lovingly sketches and
delicately paints with watercolors. In fact, one of the rather intriguing
touches to this film is that the characters occasionally come to life
thanks to animation. Noonan uses this technique judiciously and it
provides a welcome infusion of whimsy to the film.

  Otherwise, the story is rather predictable. Potter approaches a
publishing house run by two brothers who agree to issue her book. They
turn the project over to their younger brother Norman Warne (McGregor)
in the hopes he'll muck it up and therefore remove himself from the
family business. Instead, he is enchanted by Potter's drawings (and by
the lady herself). They team up to produce the book and the results are
a runaway success.

  The fly in the ointment, as it were, is that Beatrix Potter's parents
are not happy with her career choice. Like many of the nouveu riche class,
her parents (nicely essayed by Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn) had
hoped to see their daughter married off to a wealthy man. Instead,
Beatrix rejected their chosen suitors and remained unmarried, so that by
the time her books were being published, she was considered an "old
maid" and a bit of a financial burden on her folks. (It probably didn't help
her case that her younger brother ran off with an undesirable woman --
a fact alluded to in one scene.)

  Although chaperoned by Miss Wiggin (an amusing Maytelock Ellis??),
Beatrix and Norman conduct a courtship culminating in her allowing him
into her inner sanctum in order for her to present him with his Christmas
present. In a very sweet scene, nicely played by the actors, Norman more
or less proposes. Although she has become a wealthy woman in her own
right, Beatrix resorts to convention and allows her parents to dictate the
terms of the engagement; it is to be conducted in secret and the couple
must spend the summer apart. Tragedy ensues and then -- well, not much
else that is dramatic occurs, although the movie runs on. The final
sequences show Beatrix Potter purchasing a farm and settling into a
country life in the Northlands.

  While it is great to have Chris Noonan back working,
MISS POTTER
is a much weaker vehicle. He has directed the film well but the material is
slight. Maltby's screenplay travels through its points in Potter's life but it
feels incomplete somehow. Undoubtedly that's because of the its
inception: a book for a musical is by nature only an outline in which the
songs flesh out the details. As a librettist, Maltby is not exactly one of
the best working in the theater -- he is a much better director and lyricist           
(especially working in tandem with David Shire).

  McGregor does a nice job as Norman, but he has played this sort
of bumbling type before, so it doesn't seem much of a stretch. Zellweger
tries hard and manages a few moments but I couldn't help thinking that
several other women could easily have been cast in the role to better
effect. The best work in the movie comes from the supporting cast.
Emily Watson as Norman's unmarried sister nearly purloins the film with
her portrayal of a woman who spouts outrageous ideas but who really
craves a husband. There's also a  nice cameo by Phyllida Law as Norman's
mother. Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn do excellent work as Beatrix's
parents.

  There's nothing inherently wrong with
MISS POTTER. It's just a
throwback to the biopics of the 1930s and 40s and in some ways it may
seem progressive to contemporary audiences. Hopefully, it will spur
people to go out and learn more about the woman and her work.



                  Rating:                B-
                  MPAA Rating:        PG
                  Running time:       92 mins.
Miss Potter
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.