2½ stars (out of four)
The creator of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was once paid a visit by a fan. "I've come to see the famous author Beatrix Potter," the stranger announced. "Well," said the celebrity, continuing with her gardening, "now you've seen her, so push off."
Whether or not this anecdote represents a facet of the real woman, she is nowhere to be found in "Miss Potter," a scenic, well-behaved account of Potter's life and times.
Director Chris Noonan's first film since "Babe" 11 years ago, the picture tips back and forth between craftsmanly strengths and decorous limitations. Noonan and cinematographer Andrew Dunn polish each scene of early 20th Century London, both interior and exterior, to a high and honeyed sheen. When the story takes Potter (both as a young girl and as an adult) to the English Lake District, the greenery makes your mouth and your eyes water. The images rarely settle for the surface appeal of filmed postcards, though the decision to animate bits of Potter's literary creations when Potter finds herself communing with them was not, I think, the right one.
There are some choice supporting performances. Emily Watson plays the sister of Beatrix's devoted publisher (Ewan McGregor, virtually de-sexualized), and she's vibrant as always. (The film focuses on Potter's first, resounding success in publishing in 1902 and several years thereafter.) Bill Paterson, one of my favorite English character men, is Potter's mutton-chopped lamb of a father.
The star is more problematic. Renee Zellweger plays Beatrix as pluck personified, with a few slabs of chin-up good cheer to go with it. She's rather less convincing here than she was as Bridget Jones. It's not a matter of dialect slippage, or even the newly limited expressive range of Zellweger's face, which was pretty interesting once upon a time. Rather, it's a case of a performer overacting a certain way because she's inhabiting a period film, surrounded by actors who don't have to sweat it.
Potter's books are less sentimental than most Americans tend to remember: The author's drawings of rabbits and mice and puddle-ducks are more realistic than usual, especially for the time, and the specter of punishment or death from on high lurks in every chapter. "Miss Potter" doesn't venture terribly far into these darker corners.
Lucy Boynton portrays Beatrix at age 10, Perdita Weeks takes over at 18; Zellweger enters the picture a few chronological years thereafter. By this time this independent spirit has set her sights on becoming an author. Her serenely comfortable middle-class father (Paterson) is amused and encouraging of her ambitions; her mother (Barbara Flynn, scowling) is not. "Peter Rabbit" is sold to the Warne publishing house. Since the "bunny book" has little chance of success, novice Warne brother Norman (McGregor) takes stewardship of the project. Love blooms, slowly but surely, between Beatrix and Norman. More quickly comes the popular success of Potter's animal kingdom.
Potter's happiness with Norman was shortchanged in life, and this matter is handled tactfully but movingly in "Miss Potter." Zellweger is more comfortable in these later scenes. In the main, gently comic vein, though, she's working every second, visibly. Moments large and small alike come off actressy and effortful, and the script by musical theater veteran Richard Maltby Jr. doesn't help. Visually, Noonan lets it all breathe as much as possible, but line to line, it will surprise no one that Maltby--who wrote "Miss Potter" in the early 1990s--initially wanted to turn Potter's story into a musical.
"You don't have any friends," says her mother at one point. "Yes, I do, mother," Beatrix replies, dreamily. "Every time I draw." If that's not a song cue, nothing is.
Directed by Chris Noonan; screenplay by Richard Maltby Jr.; cinematography by Andrew Dunn; edited by Robin Sales; production design by Martin Childs; produced by Mike Medavoy, David Kirschner, Corey Sienega, Arnold Messer and David Thwaites. A Weinstein Company release; opens Friday at the Pipers Alley and Evanston CineArts theaters. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: PG (for brief mild language).
Beatrix Potter - Renee Zellweger
Norman Warne - Ewan McGregor
Millie Warne - Emily Watson
Mrs. Potter - Barbara Flynn
Rupert Potter - Bill Paterson