Dir: Chris Noonan. UK-US. 2006. 93mins.
A period feature about a popular children's writer enduring a traumatic life, Chris Noonan's Miss Potter may follow in the footsteps of Shadowlands (about CS Lewis) and Marc Forster's Finding Neverland (about JM Barrie), but it lacks the emotional depth of either. Very handsomely crafted, full of sumptuous shots and meticulous in its evocation of Edwardian
Enjoying a limited release in the
Decently acted and with occasional moments of visual flair, its best chances lie with fans of upscale British work, especially in
Using flashbacks to Potter's childhood, Noonan takes the audience through the key staging posts in the aspiring author's life.
The young Beatrix (charmingly played by Lucy Boynton) is a solitary child who loves to draw and has a fervent imagination. The main part of the story concerns her early career as an author, as she faces opposition from her snobbish parents, who do not think that writing for money is becoming in a young lady. Meanwhile the Warne brothers, her prospective publishers, are extremely sceptical about what they disparagingly call her 'bunny books' and only agree to sign her up so as to keep their under-employed younger brother Norman (McGregor) occupied.
As Beatrix and Norman work together, so they become closer and closer (Beatrix also strikes up a firm friendship with his free-spirited sister Millie, played by Emily Watson).
Director Chris Noonan, making his first feature in more than decade since Babe, seems uncertain what approach he wants to take to Potter's life. At times he hints that he is interested in trying to portray her inner, fantasy life (as Steven Shainberg recently attempted with photographer Diane Arbus in Fur), using flashbacks to her childhood and clever animation that brings her creations to life.
But these expressionist flourishes are relatively restrained and kept in check. Noonan cannot match Potter's flights of fancy, and the film might have been livelier had he given more space to such emotions which, as Beatrix made clear, sustained her in a life that she might otherwise have found unbearable.
Rather Noonan's treatment of Potter is stolid, and at times feels like an account of the society in which she lived, complete with examinations of early feminism, the role of female authors and insights into Edwardian publishing. There are also asides about the hoary old attitudes towards sex and class.
Such manifold distractions veer Miss Potter off into too many by-ways and ensure that it lacks the necessary narrative momentum and dramatic intensity: perhaps Beatrix was simply too reticent a figure, and led too uneventful an existence, to warrant a feature-length biopic.
Devotees of the Bridget Jones movies may be intrigued to see Renee Zellweger playing another singleton, albeit one from the Edwardian era, but Miss Potter conspicuously lacks the zest of Ms Jones.
Rene Zellweger is a fine comic actress and her performance here, all coyness and puckered cheeks, is cleverly observed without pulling at the heart strings in the way that might have been expected. She works well with Ewan McGregor -who she starred opposite in Down With Love - and the pair have an obvious rapport.
For his part McGregor seems to enjoy himself as the awkward and seemingly naive young publisher who helps turn Potter into a household name and whose budding romance with her forms the dramatic core of the piece. The only problem is how quickly and abruptly, through necessity, that their affair ends.
Cinematographer Andrew Dunn captures Potter's beloved
The music is used in heavy-handed fashion to try to crack up a sense of drama and emotion that is not really there.
David Kirschner Productions
UK Film Council
Isle Of Man Film
MGM/The Weinstein Company
Richard Maltby Jr