Beatrix Potter may not be thought of as a feminist environmentalist by the generations weaned on her classic tales, but the creator of “Peter Rabbit” is given such a modernized frame in “Miss Potter.” Couched in gentle late Victoriana and decorated in postcard landscapes, pic is designed as a warm holiday season toddy of a movie, with the added spice of Potter striking out on her own as an artist and a sensitive land steward. Renee Zellweger, in another Blighty role, struggles to make Beatrix credible, and pic similarly will struggle to attract auds in an extremely crowded season.
The general ease and smoothness of its relatively compact telling (a playing time of less than 90 minutes describes the key phase of the author’s life from 1902-1906) conceals the project’s long, difficult gestation, starting with Richard Maltby Jr.’s screenplay that dates back to the early ’90s. But, despite director Chris Noonan chosing “Miss Potter” to break his incredible 11-year span without helming since “Babe” in 1995, only brief snippets of the immense promise suggested by Noonan’s sweet, resonant tale of a pig are on view here. Unfortunately, much of the pic suggests a quality family film that could have been directed by dozens of other pros.
Beatrix is intro’d as a struggling, misunderstood young artist still living in London with her father Rupert (Bill Paterson, ideally cast) and her utterly insensitive mother (Barbara Flynn, tough and impregnable). Suffice it to say that, in an aggressively nouveau riche family like the Potters, a grown daughter with a taste for making colorful illustrations to accompany her stories of furry animal characters with human traits is less than the Victorian ideal.
Maltby stresses early on that Beatrix’s only ally in her artistic efforts is her father. But this treatment fails to factor in Rupert’s reasons, including his own past love of image-making and photography.
The young author is bluntly assaulted by obstacles on all sides, and not just from her mother, but from the absurdly ugly yet wealthy bachelors she’s forced to meet, and from editors who show little taste for her “bunny book.”
Harold and Fruing Warne (played by Anton Lesser and David Bamber) are two such editors, but they decide to take on “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as a minor project to keep younger, supposedly callow brother Norman (Ewan McGregor) busy. Norman, though, takes the book as seriously as Beatrix does — much to her surprise — and the film’s most touching and genuine passage follows the listening and supportive Norman and detail-oriented Beatrix from conception to final publication. In the process, they fall in love.
Maltby generally adheres to the historical record, with some embellishments such as Beatrix’s parents’ strong resistance to Norman — a tradesman supposedly below their rank — as a prospective husband for Beatrix. Enter lively Millie (Emily Watson), Norman’s unmarried sister, who befriends Beatrix as Beatrix tries to convince her parents that she wants to finally wed.
Deal struck compels the fiances to stay apart for a summer, and then, if they still desire to marry, Beatrix will get her parents’ blessings. The winds shift, however, leaving Beatrix disconsolate.
The film’s sole imaginative visual idea is to have Beatrix’s drawings come to animated life when she talks to them — as this particular Beatrix is somewhat unnervingly wont to do. When Beatrix is in emotional crisis, her beloved characters scamper for cover, as if she were a forest fire about to consume them.
Millie is able to pull Beatrix out of her funk, and Watson’s glorious presence triggers thoughts of how this thesp would have made a far more fascinating (if less physically exact) Potter. Final third describes Beatrix’s escape from family life to settling down in the Lake Country, thanks to her discovery (a fact quickly glossed over in the script) that she’s in financial control of a small fortune. First buying bucolic Hill Top Farm and then more farmland, Potter amazes her handsome realtor (Lloyd Owen) with her knack for keeping property out of the hands of greedy developers.
Pic ends gently, capped by a closing credit noting Potter’s famed management of many farm and undeveloped properties that she bequeathed to the U.K.’s National Trust.
Zellweger’s Beatrix is hard to warm to, which is made more difficult by the actor’s visible efforts to play as British as possible. Paired with both an easy, velvety McGregor — who has rarely appeared so pleasant — and the firecracker Watson, Zellweger looks considerably outmatched and ever so strained. Casting aims for close physical resemblance to actual figures, but this is submerged by the supporting thesps’ fine work, including Matyelok Gibbs as Beatrix’s comically doddering chaperon.
Given “Babe,” Noonan’s conventional vision of Beatrix’s quotidian and imaginative lives is hugely disappointing and doesn’t even take any cues from the author’s witty illustrative style. Lensing and design tend toward the picturesque, while the score by Nigel Westlake (sounding a lot like Rachel Portman, credited with additional music) is a sentimental variation on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ pastoral music.