Miss Potter Review
Beatrix Potter is having a hard time growing out of childhood. In spite of being a mature woman, her parents (Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn) exhibit a strong Victorian belief that a woman's place is in a marriage and encourage Beatrix to put away her watercolours in favour of finding an eligible bachelor and making a good home for him. Beatrix, though, has a rare imagination and doesn't just paint Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and Jeremy Fisher but watches them come out of their stories and into her life, where she talks and listens to them and marvels at how well they understand her when her own family does not. Throughout her life, even from childhood, she has been writing these stories down but never expressing much of an interest in having them published until Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) calls to the Potter home one day. In spite of her mother's tutting at letting a tradesman enter through the front door, Beatrix greets Norman and listens as he tells her that he wishes to publish her stories in small hardbacked books through his brother's publishing house. The two even find they have something in common, with Beatrix never having had one of her stories published and Norman, in spite of his pitch, never having published a book. Together, they throw themselves into their efforts enthusiastically but in spite of their happiness and a love affair, fate has other plans in store for them.
All of which sounds marvellous. Bunny rabbits, flashbacks into an idyllic past, a somewhat modern woman struggling against the prejudices of the time and a romance...what more could one ask for? Well, someone other than Renee Zellweger in the role of Beatrix Potter would be a start, who is so dreadful in the part that not even with several beakers full of hazardous substances and a Bunsen burner could one engineer any chemistry between her and the rest of a very good cast. It isn't that she's not attractive - she, in spite of what several fashion magazines have to say on the subject, isn't - it's more that she looks uncomfortable in the part of Beatrix Potter as though the clothes, the mannerisms and the sumptuous design of the sets are simply ill-fitting on Zellweger, which no amount of acting nous can disguise. Unfortunately, Zellweger and director Chris Noonan, who got a more realistic performance out the sheep-pig of Babe, have decided to make Potter a somewhat batty spinster with Zellweger going for a kind of enthusiasm but which could just as easily be mistaken for severe migraine, painful blistering of the left foot or surprisingly pleasant flatulence. Indeed, her face becomes a thing to wonder at, being so contorted as to suggest that an operation went awry and Zellweger's small intestine was placed back into her body not where it originally lay but in her cheeks. Hamster-ish is how one might kindly describe it, completely insane were one less so. Ironically, Zellweger will later say that much of the Potter character came out of an expressiveness through her eyes, which will be a surprise to anyone who's actually watched the thing given that they're often pushed together so tight as to actually be closed while her cheeks are pinched so tight that bullets could simply bounce off them. And her colour? There's ruddy - being honest, windblown and tanned - and there's having a face not a shade away from the bright scarlet of a baboon's arse. Zellweger, scrubbed with a brillo pad, shines like a postbox.
Ewan McGregor is not a good deal better, aiming for the same note of enthusiasm but finding there's such little spark between them that they appear to be less a young couple whose affair is doomed than simply cooing excitedly over one another's collection of paper foldings. "This will be the longest summer..." is what Beatrix has to say to Norman as she departs for her summer holiday in the Lake District. "How can they know how we feel. They've never felt it!" is his reply, which would be quite depressing until you realise that Zellweger has had the most terrible things said to her in her history of romantic comedies. "You complete me!" is what Tom Cruise had to say to her, "[A] verbally incontinent spinster who drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and dresses like her mother!" is what Colin Firth came up with while Hugh Grant called her a dirty bitch. Zellweger, in spite of the frequency with which she's cast in them, would appear to have a quite dreadful time in otherwise light romantic comedies and this one is no different. When Zellweger and McGregor, who were equally terrible together in Down With Love, kiss and part on the train platform, there's some relief at such a juvenile love affair coming to an end. I'm not sure if the smile on McGregor's face as Zellweger leaves on the train is over Norman Warne's love for Beatrix Potter or his relief at departing the film.
In amongst all of this, one almost jumps for joy at seeing Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn as Potter's parents. Paterson, admittedly, doesn't have to do a whole lot in the film other than to wear a quite marvellous pair of sideburns and eventually bestow his blessing on his daughter's writing but when he and Flynn are together, they bring a kind of peace to the film, one that's much needed in amongst the Victorian flimflam offered by McGregor and Zellweger. Emily Watson isn't at all bad either as Norman's unmarried sister, who, from her being a spinster, wearing a suit with a particularly masculine cut and a keen playing of whist, is clearly a lesbian. Again, she brings a relaxed charm to the film. But its Lloyd Owen who makes the most of Miss Potter. Owen, whether by his broad Yorkshire accent or his similarity to Chris Morris, has had rather a patchy time in feature films. He's had some success in the theatre (Closer) and television (Monarch Of The Glen) but has done very little on the screen. Here, by doing nothing more than playing down his part with humour turns up and steals away the film. Unfortuantely, he only does so in its last fifteen minutes when he arrives, cast as the man who would eventually marry Beatrix Potter but it's a good turn nonetheless.
There isn't much to say whether or not it's a particularly accurate film but given the mauling that Zellweger gives the part of Beatrix Potter, I wouldn't think that it is. No one gets any more than the briefest of parts with the ninety minutes of Miss Potter being something of a blessing but not being long enough to really leave one caring for these characters. On the contrary, I could feel myself actually getting annoyed by the film's mix of twee Victoriana and wholly misguided characterisation. And getting so incensed about a film is very far from being a good thing.
Miss Potter has received a very decent transfer from Momentum, being sharp enough to show off the brief animation sequences and well able to portray the beautifully designed sets. Better yet is when the film moves out of London to the Lake District, where Miss Potter really does do the English countryside proud, being a wonderful mix of lush green and overcast skies. The print is almost flawless and the DVD would be, were it not for the actual film, be a pleasure to watch. There really isn't much to note about the DD5.1 audio track other than to say it is, like the picture, very clean and obviously in very good condition but being a period romance, there is very little use of the rear surrounds. The English subtitles are generally good - accuracy is occasionally sacrificed for keeping them short - and though the menu claims that the subtitles carry over into the bonus material, this is not the case.
There are only two bonus features on this DVD, the first being a music video for Katie Melua's When You Taught Me How To Dance (3m22s), which is a nice enough little tune, that is then followed by a Making Of (33m58s). All of the main cast appear in this feature mostly in costume to talk about their own reading of the characters and the real-life Helen, Rupert and Beatrix Potter and Norman and Amelia Warne. Over a third as long as the actual film, this allows each actor a quite decent amount of time to talk about their part in the film but, on the whole, it's overly flattering to the film's relationship to the truth.