“There’s something quite delicious about writing the first words of a story, ” the accented voice of Renée Zellweger rings out at the very beginning of Miss Potter, “you never quite know where they’ll take you.”
That might very well be true for a lot of writers, including the one she plays here, but it certainly doesn’t apply to this particular story. Given that Zellweger stars as Beatrix Potter, one of the most revered children’s authors and artists of the last century, we know exactly where this story will take us.
So there’s very little in the way of suspense in the early scenes of the prosaically titled Miss Potter (Wouldn’t The Tale of Beatrix Potter have been a more appropriate title, given the strict formula after which she titled almost every one of her own stories?).
We see star and executive producer Zellweger (apparently bound and determined to play all of England’s most revered female characters, no matter what the Brits might think of the matter) shopping The Tale of Peter Rabbit around to turn of the (twentieth) century publishers, who think little of her “bunny book,” and even less of an unmarried woman dallying in the publishing business. (Of course, given the fact that we were all read the story as kids, it’s hard to get too worked up over whether or not Potter will ever find a publisher. In that respect, it doesn’t make for much of an underdog story).
The familiarity of the subject matter isn’t the only predictable aspect of the film, which takes very few risks and contains even fewer surprises, however.
Screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. and director Chris Noonan (Babe) stick very closely to the tried and true Hollywood biopic formula, complete with text afterword, yet they still manage to tell an emotional, affecting tale, thanks in no small part to the fascinating life of their subject and the strong performance by their lead.
Potter is presented as more than a bit of an eccentric, referring to her drawings as her “friends” and talking to them, even while meeting with her publishers. She also refuses to marry just to marry, nor to follow in her social climbing, dinner party-throwing, thoroughly Victorian mother’s footsteps.
After a publishing firm fobs her off on their earnest and naive little brother to keep him out of their hair, Potter finds her career in the hands of handsome Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor, no relation to Farmer McGregor).
The pair team up to “give them a bunny book to conjure with!” and a literary legend is born, but, as the meaningful glances exchanged beneath the notice of elderly chaperon Matyelok Gibbs attest, each has something more in mind from the other than a professional relationship.
Their forbidden, inter-class romance, consisting of the giddy highs and melodramatic lows of a typical teenage romance (indeed, Potter is very much a thritysomething teenager), is at the center of the film, making for a sprawling second act that overshadows the early scenes of her unconvincing uphill battle to publish and her work later in life to preserve as much of the English countryside that inspired her work as the profits from that work would allow.
It is during the scenes between Zellweger and McGregor that the film finds the greatest traction, and Maltby and Noonan their greatest inspirations (Like a scene in which the two steal a kiss while blanketed in the steam of a train engine, or their thoroughly Victorian translation of lust into chaste conversations and the occasional brushing of the hands).
The focus on this relationship necessitates somewhat short shrift be given to other elements of Potter’s life, but the film makes for a rather remarkable study in story economy. In just 90 minutes, Miss Potter manages to play Beatrix Potter as a gifted artist, a wacky English eccentric, a proto-celebrity so new to fame she doesn’t even realize her own wealth, a conservationist and environmentalist and a feminist heroine, bucking her society’s wrong-headed conventions at every turn, at one point telling her severely lambchopped father, “I must make my own way.”
It’s a curt and occasionally too cursory film, but it is an overwhelmingly charming one, with an infectiously romantic spirit and the decency and generosity to reward us with a nursery-perfect happy ending.