One of the great tragedies in the current onslaught of biopics is that they seem to have adopted a movie formula, as if any old person's life could be crammed into the same three-act structure. (Aren't human beings supposed to be as different as snowflakes?) The most brutally obvious recent examples were Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005), which, as we speak, are probably inadvertently merging the legends of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash into interchangeable tidbits.
Chris Noonan's Miss Potter doesn't rectify this situation, but it does move in a different direction, into a more fanciful realm. It's more interested in capturing the essence of its subject -- children's author Beatrix Potter -- than in providing a checklist of the things she accomplished. Like a smoother Finding Neverland (2004), it moves away from reality and into movieland, which at least is more honest than falsely representing reality. Miss Potter starts badly and ends badly, but a good, solid hour in the middle is as charming as anything you'll see this holiday season. It's actually a perfect movie to see on Christmas Day between presents and dinner.
Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) is, horror of horrors, unmarried and in her thirties in turn-of-the-century London. She lives with her well-to-do parents and, being single-minded and independent, has rejected all the "suitors" her parents presented to her. Rather, she likes to spend her time with her "friends," her drawings and paintings of rabbits and such. Sometimes, these "friends" come to life on the page -- in lovely hand-drawn animation by Alyson Hamilton -- but without overwhelming the film and drawing attention away from Beatrix.
Beatrix has written a little illustrated book called Peter Rabbit. Publishers tend to humor her, until the purveyors of one publishing house foist the project on their pestering younger brother Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). If it fails, they will have killed two birds with one stone. But of course, the book is a major success, and Norman and Beatrix continue to work together on more books. Norman's sister Millie (Emily Watson), also unmarried and in her thirties, becomes Beatrix's fast friend. Beatrix and Norman slowly fall in love, much to the chagrin of Beatrix's parents, who still desire her to marry someone of her station. So a solution is posed: Beatrix will accompany her parents to their summer home, and if the passion has not died by the fall, the lovers can marry.
I won't say what happens next, but the final portion of the film concentrates on Beatrix using her fortune to buy up and preserve great chunks of Britain's Lake District, which remain there to this day.
Noonan, of course, is the celebrated, Oscar-nominated director of Babe (1995), and this is his first film since that hit. He has an animator's smooth, springy touch, and he tones down the film's early twittery parts as well as the later, hysterically tragic parts (a lesser director would have made this material into an unwatchable hash). As with Babe, Noonan understands that the animated sections are only there to support the story, and so he handles them subtly. The middle hour is his triumph, with the two lovers growing closer and the books becoming successful. The pair cannot be in public together without Beatrix's dour old chaperone, a grandmother (or spinster aunt?) dressed in mourning black. Noonan gives this section a cheerful lift, reveling in the warmth of an old-fashioned Christmas party or the simple, seductive power of a story about rabbits.
McGregor is already an old hat at this kind of stuff, having grinned his way through singsong parts in Little Voice (1998), Moulin Rouge (2001) and Down with Love (2003), and he's at ease here. As for Zellweger, it's hard to think of another actress in her thirties with that same childlike glow, but she also brings some annoying habits to her role as Beatrix. Certainly her English accent is as spot-on as ever (though a different dialect than in Bridget Jones), but she also has a kind of broad theatricality, an overselling of herself that would seem more at home in a stage production of Oklahoma! than it does here. She used this exaggeration in the dreadful, overrated Cold Mountain (2003) and though it won her an Oscar it remains her worst performance to date. Noonan keeps her in check better than Minghella did, but what she needs is a touch of darkness to ground her, as in her best film to date, Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty (2000).
That aside, Miss Potter is a holiday sweet or a Christmas ornament, momentarily enjoyed and quickly forgotten, quite unlike the Peter Rabbit books themselves. My local bookstore has them stocked in their delightful little hardback editions, barely changed for over 100 years. That is the real testament to the life of Beatrix Potter.