There's no getting around that Renee Zellweger is a talented but odd-looking leading lady. In her earliest work, the actress had an engaging openness that won over audiences with its unadorned sincerity. Lacking the sharp angles that grace most female stars, however, her face now appears to be in a perpetual state of allergic reaction. Perhaps this is the reason Zellweger's more recent roles have seen her contort, pinch and screw her mug into any number of attention-grabbing looks. Audiences might not have noticed in Chicago's heated razzle-dazzle but in the pleasantly bland Miss Potter, Zellweger's fidgety gestures stand out like a bobble-head.
The story of children's author Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit etc.), this Victorian-era biopic is perfectly likable but ultimately unnecessary. Surprisingly, gifted Australian director Chris Noonan spent an entire decade choosing it as follow-up to his whimsically sublime Babe.
The well-heeled daughter of a genial father and avariciously social-climbing mother, Potter (Zellweger) is a 30-year-old "spinster" when Warner Press' managing brothers decide to fob off her silly little book, Peter Rabbit, to their youngest sibling, Norman (Ewan McGregor). Unexpectedly, Potter becomes a best-selling author and as you might expect romantic sparks fly between publisher and author. Unfortunately, Beatrix's parents (Bill Patterson and Barbara Flynn) rankle at the thought of a tradesman besmirching their lofty social circles. Confrontations and low-key tragedies ensue as vaguely feminist Beatrix quietly rebels against the constricted mores of her time.
Noonan gives the production an undeniably cheery tone and the film is beautifully made; more importantly, he's smart enough to keep in check the script's blatantly sentimental moments. Still, there's no getting around the fact there's little evidence this tale needed to be told. In the end, Miss Potter lacks a pretty vital ingredient to storytelling: drama. Which is to say, nothing much happens. Potter's obstacles aren't particularly daunting and, as depicted in the film, easily overcome. Richard Maltby Jr.'s script is frustratingly opaque, never building to an emotional or narrative climax. Instead it's one mildly engaging event after another.
Noonan an expert at toeing the line between charm and nonsense tries to spruce things up with some fanciful animated sequences, suggesting Beatrix had a uniquely intimate relationship with her creations. But he never integrates them into a compelling portrait of a creative artist.
Zellweger, who mastered the British accent for her Bridget Jones films, struggles mightily to win our affection but never generates warmth for her character. The supporting cast, however, is first-rate. McGregor is winning as a geeky charmer and Emily Watson is a delightfully anachronistic pillar of feminist strength. Patterson and Flynn are consummate pros and Matyelok Gibbs practically runs away with the film as Beatrix's silent, gray-haired chaperone.
If you're looking for an illuminating character study of this iconic children's author, you'll be disappointed. If undemanding sweetness and inoffensive whimsy matter to you, Miss Potter is a candy-coated morsel of tasteful moviemaking.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].