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 England, it is nonetheless a strangely listless affair, venturing in several different directions without doing justice to any of them.

Enjoying a limited release in the US in late December prior to its UK release in early January, Miss Potter may struggle to find favour in a theatrical marketplace already crowded with big-hitters vying for awards recognition. Beatrix's publishers confidently predicted that her 'bunny books' would struggle to sell 10 copies, then looked on in amazement as she became one of the most successful children's authors of all time - but it seems unlikely that Miss Potter will confound expectations in the same way.

Decently acted and with occasional moments of visual flair, its best chances lie with fans of upscale British work, especially in Japan, where Potter and her works have a massive fanbase. A good awards profile - lead Rene Zellweger has been nominated for a Golden Globe best actress award (comedy or musical) - may help matters.

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). Norman turns out to be an inventive and inspirational collaborator for Beatrix and, despite parental disapproval, they plot to marry - but tragedy intervenes.

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 Lake District at its most luscious. Production design, costume and make-up are also of a high standard and intricately detailed, although the fetishistic attention to buttons, moustaches and bonnets occasionally gets in the way of the drama. Bill Patterson, as Beatrix's father Rupert, sports bushy whiskers that resemble filigrees of silvery candy floss, but although they may have been historically accurate, they cannot but appear comical and distracting.

The music is used in heavy-handed fashion to try to crack up a sense of drama and emotion that is not really there.

Production companies/backers
Phoenix Pictures
David Kirschner Productions
BBC Films
UK Film Council
Isle Of Man Film

International sales
Summit Entertainment

US distribution
MGM/The Weinstein Company

UK distribution

Executive producers
Renee Zellweger
Nigel Wooll
Louis Phillips
Steve Christian
Harvey Weinstein
Bob Weinstein
Colin Vaines

Mike Medavoy
David Kirschner
Corey Sienega
Arnold Messer
David Thwaites

Richard Maltby Jr

Andrew Dunn

Robin Sales

Production design
Martin Childs

Nigel Westlake

Main cast
Renee Zellweger
Emily Watson
Ewan McGregor
Lloyd Owen
Matyelok Gibbs
Jane How
Anton Lesser
Richard Mulholland
Lloyd Owen
Bill Paterson
Lucy Boynton
Justin McDonald