Miss Potter

“Miss Potter” is a harmlessly sweet, middle-of-the-road picture, neither illuminating as a biopicture of the noted British author Beatrix Potter, nor enchanting as a fable or fairytale in the manner of “Finding Neverland.”

Surprisingly, it has taken the gifted Australian director Chris Noonan, who had made the brilliant “Babe,” a whole decade to come up with a follow-up. However, judged by the mediocre results of this period piece, it's hard to tell what exactly excited Noonan about the material.

Essaying a British accent for the second time in her career (after the far more enjoyable “Bridgett Jones” movies) Renee Zellweger gives an honorable performance, but she seems constrained by a rather stiff script that resorts to the most conventional use of flashbacks.

At a time when most young women of her class aimed only to have a good marriage and settle into domesticity, Beatrix Potter became an iconic figure, going with great fortitude against the tide. Beatrix created a series of books and characters that are as beloved today as they were a hundred years ago; since their publication they have never been out of print. According to the movie, Beatrix was also a distinguished painter, and, had she been a man, her botanical drawings would have been chosen by the Royal Horticultural Society at Kew Gardens.

The movie is well researched, but it's devoid of excitement on any level. Moreover, several segments of Beatrix's adventurous life are listless, despite the interesting events they depict. The movie goes out of its way to establish Miss Potter as an artist of infinite skills that accomplished way beyond the cuddly bunnies and nursery plates she is associated with in the public consciousness. Beatrix is shown to be an independent free thinker, who fell in love with her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor).

As played by Zellweger, Beatrix comes across as a noble figure, a woman who left a publishing legacy that has enchanted generations of readers, a woman who left vast swathes of Englands beautiful Lake District to the nation in bequests to the then infant National Trust. The saga suggests that it is because of Beatrix that the Lake District has remained as intact today as it was when she first saw it over a century ago.

A light feminist streak runs through the film, which envisions Beatrix as a woman ahead of her time, a modern femme placed into the suffocating social environment of the turn of the 20th Century. Maltbys screenplay tells of Beatrix Potters love for her publisher, Norman Warne and her striving towards an independent life at a time when her expected place in society was as a conformist wife. It praises her talented penboth as a writer and an artist. It tells of a woman whose life was a fascinating mix of professional achievement and private grief.

Beatrix Potters conventional, social-climbing Victorian parents did not view their daughters adolescent stories about animals and the accompanying drawings as having particular merit. They were even less enthusiastic about her affection for a man in trade, hoping for a more acceptable liaison, insisted the relationship remain a secret. To her mother, Beatrix was a mystery and a profound disappointment.

In contrast, Beatrix's father Rupert shared her artistic bent and was a talented amateur photographer at the dawn of the new technology. A wealthy man, he was able to indulge his hobby. Nonetheless, neither parent really understood the scale of their daughters talent.

Zellweger's performance here lacks spontaneity and the kind of slightly anarchic, and subversive humor we have come to expect of her. Potters secret sweetheart, publisher Norman Warne, is cast with Ewan McGregor (it's their second teaming after “Down With Love”), who plays him as a charming if awkward character. Emily Watson plays Millie Warne, Norman's sister and Beatrix's friend and confidante.

Potter's parents are cast with two of Britains most excellent acting talents, Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson. Anton Lesser plays publisher Harold Warne, and Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson's mother) is cast as Mrs. Warne, the publishers invalid mother. The 11-year-old Beatrix is played by Lucy Boynton.

Noon has assembled an A-talent crew behind the cameras, beginning with director of cinematography Andrew Dunn (“The Madness of King George,” “Gosford Park”). Oscar winning production designer Martin Childs has done a good job of establishing the authenticity of the various time frames in terms of technology (electricity, cars) and look of the indoor scenes; when Beatrix is a child, the interiors are lit by oil and gas lamp; when she is an adult, they're lit by electricity.

Triple Oscar-winning costume designer Anthony Powell has based his work on a collection of photographs by Beatrix's father. Beatrixs clothes are simple since she didn't care much about convention or what people thought of her. Well-brought up, she wouldnt go to a meeting with the bank manager or the publisher looking messy, but she didnt look like the women of her age. Powell emphasizes the contrast between the way Beatrix looked and the way other women looked. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, women tended to be overdressed, over coifed, over hated; it was the full flowering of the belle epoch.

For me, the testament of a good, exciting biopicture is that it makes you want to know more about the artist and her creation. After this Potter, I felt I know enoughat least for now.