'Miss Potter' Has its Charms
By John Hartl, Film critic, MSNBC
What a difference a century makes. Set in London more than 100 years ago, "Miss Potter" presents a society so repressed that the sight of two people touching hands at lunch can stir a scandal.
The two in question are virginal Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger) and her naïve publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) — two dewy innocents who defy convention and disturb their relatives by going beyond their business ties.
When they turn her tales of Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck into a publishing phenomenon, their infatuation with each other is partly based on the shared triumph of two young people who have never before been taken seriously. His brothers give him her account to keep him busy and out of their hair, while her parents brush off any suggestions that she's an artist.
Australian director Chris Noonan, who made the charming barnyard fable "Babe," is in his element here, celebrating the relationship between two headstrong people who can't help breaking the rules. They're inherently but politely rebellious.
The movie sometimes suggests a dictionary definition of "twee" — "excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty or sentimental," according to Oxford — but it's also quite easy on the eyes and mind. It's holiday entertainment, undemanding yet never insulting.
Its chief drawback is that it fails to suggest why Potter's creations have had such lasting impact. When she tells an unfinished tale at a cozy Christmas party, it's hard to understand why the guests are enchanted. Only her drawings, which are sometimes animated for dramatic effect, suggest a talent that would delight the world.
Working from a script by Richard Maltby Jr., Noonan delights in creating suspense from the tiniest domestic situations. When Potter's father (Bill Paterson) buys one of her books because they're causing a stir, Noonan doesn't at first suggest whether he's going to approve or send Beatrix to her room. He drags out the resolution, teasing the audience for what seems like several minutes.
When Potter's parents object to her plan to marry Warne, for reasons that aren't entirely clear (is it class or isn't it?), there's a similar suspension of time. When the couple decide to obey her parents' wishes by cooling down for a summer, Noonan creates another kind of tension around the couple's determination to keep in touch by writing to each other on a daily basis. When a day is missed, a seismic shift seems to have occurred.
Zellweger at first seems mannered, but that self-consciousness quickly becomes an essential part of the character, who has maintained her ability to fantasize about her animal friends since childhood. McGregor has charm to spare, especially in the scenes in which he becomes enthralled with Potter's work.
But the scene-stealers here are Paterson, who makes Potter's father seem reasonable even when he isn't (at least by 21st Century standards), and Emily Watson, who gives Warne's slightly scary sister, Millie, the force of a tidal wave. When she tells Beatrix that they will be friends, she almost makes the announcement sound like a threat.