Wander into a screening of "Miss Potter" a few minutes lateto see Renee Zellweger, in a long skirt and loose bun, scribbling in anotebook while musing to herself in British-accented voice-over and youmight easily mistake it for another sequel. Could it really be, "BridgetJones III: Edwardian Spinster?"
Well, no. It's "Miss Potter," an oddball rendering of the life ofBeatrix Potter, the world-famous creator of Peter Rabbit and one of thebestselling children's book authors of all time. Written (originally asa musical) by lyricist and musical theater director Richard Maltby Jr.and directed by "Babe's" Chris Noonan, the movie is at once a flagrantpiece of kitsch and an unexpectedly affecting story about an individualovercoming personal tragedy and brutally restrictive circumstances bytalent and force of will.
From the moment she appears on screen, Zellweger imbues the characterwith many of the same flinchy, purse-lipped mannerisms she brought toBridget, but it soon becomes clear that Beatrix is no ordinarysingleton. Thirty-six and unmarried in 1902 (though, unaccountably, themovie makes her 32 the year she published "The Tale of Peter Rabbit,"because, let's face it, nobody wants to see a movie about a 36-year-oldspinster), Miss Potter talks to her illustrations as though they werereal, and the adorably anthropomorphized woodland animals andbonnet-wearing fowl (to which she referred, when speaking with otheradults, as her "friends") blink and scamper right back at her. This ismeant to be enchanting, but kill the condescending fairy-dust score byNigel Westlake and the next scene could easily take place at the localasylum.
The movie begins with the publishing company of Frederick Warne and Sonsagreeing to take on Miss Potter's "bunny book" as a practice project fortheir younger brother just joining the business. The brother turns outto be Ewan McGregor. Things start looking up for Miss Potter. NormanWarne (McGregor) takes Beatrix's characters as seriously as she does andshepherds "Peter Rabbit" to unexpected success. Beatrix and Norman'ssister Millie (Emily Watson) become close friends, and eventually Normanproposes -- which doesn't sit well with Beatrix's wealthy, snobbishparents.
"Miss Potter" is peppered with flashbacks of Beatrix as a child (she'splayed by Lucy Boynton), when she apparently wrote and drew as well asshe did as an adult. Despite good performances by Boynton and OliverJenkins as Beatrix's brother Bertram, the scenes add little more thangratuitous adorability to the movie as a whole, and saddle what turnsout to be a sad and ultimately inspiring story with unnecessary andsimplistic psychological back story. Take away the childhood scenes, theanimated sequences, the treacly score and the unaccountable forced cheerand "Miss Potter" might have been formidable. As it is, it's amaddeningly confused movie that seems to have no idea of what it wantsto be when it grows up.
Still, the movie is redeemed, by excellent performances. McGregor, inparticular, lights up the film, and in her scenes with him, when she isnot forced to interact with watercolor rabbits, Zellweger seems to wakeup from a long, cranky nap. His Norman is a pure, puppyish innocent witha bounding enthusiasm for Potter's work. "I put your drawings aside withgreat reluctance!" he tells her on the first day he comes to her houseto talk business. Watson is funny and endearing as Millie, whoimmediately recognizes Beatrix as a kindred spirit unlike the otherunmarried daughters in their circle, who "sit around gossiping all dayand unaccountably bursting into tears." These moments make "Miss Potter"worth seeing, if you can get past the feeling that you're watching aMerchant Ivory film trapped in a Disney movie's body.