Jan. 16, 2007 - Issue #587: Mermaid Tales
Silly rabbit, Beatrix is for kids
Despite its uninspired title (really, “A Dramatization of the Life of Beatrix Potter” is more appealing), Miss Potter—director Chris Noonan’s comeback 11 years after his gallant pig of a hit Babe—is a pleasant carriage ride through the career of a woman popular for tales of naughty pantsless bunny rabbits and spinster hedgehogs.
Renée Zellwegger stars as the children’s literary icon, hopping through Potter’s quirky life with an endearing, creative spirit that she trusts more than her mother’s encouragement to find herself a mediocre but comfortable marriage. In staying true to her imaginative but subtly perverse animal stories and watercolors, Potter becomes rich, famous and finds true love twice, despite how much life screws her over.
As a child, Beatrix (at several points she requests we address her by first name) walls herself up with little tales about her favourite pets, using exactly the same text as her published books. She receives mixed parental signals, however, with matronly disapproval from her mother (Barbara Flynn) and gems of creative wisdom from her father (played with an extra coat of sap by Bill Patterson).
It all changes once she grows up and sells her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, under the careful eye of endearing publisher Norman Warme (Ewan McGregor, sans full-frontal nudity). Warme is one of the first gentlemen callers to appreciate Beatrix’s spacey musings, and even before a peck on the lips, they’re engaged. And it goes from there, in a calmly paced, hot-chocolatey series of events that make up the active part of her career as a writer. With Miss Potter, Noonan is almost as rich in style as he was in 1995’s Babe, where decadent landscapes, décor and expressive faces become as significant as plot details. In fact, his stories are told more through the experience of images, plunking the audience into early 20th century mise en scène where it can practically smell the fresh baked bread and moth balls. Its not pretentious either, like the oversaturated Tim Burton; there’s certainly a respectful balance by way of production design.
Zellwegger is well-suited, hardly made up and showing a definite lack of Botox use; her smiles are more wrinkly, and she’s growing a lovely turkey waddle, giving her face the most character its had since the chubby cheeks of Bridget Jones. McGregor is coy, wearing his fake moustache with handsome and romantic grace. And there’s Emily Watson, charming as hell but deliberately plunked down in the role (Noonan wanted her in the lead, but she couldn’t commit) of Warme’s flopsy, mopsy unwed sister, Milly.
All the while, though, the audience may crave a little more edginess than the portrayal delivers. What’s particularly missing is the root of the imagination that produced what was essentially macabre about Potter’s work. Her books are a tad frightening and morally ambiguous, but the film hardly treats them with this introspection.
There’s an inkling that Noonan didn’t see the subtext of her work, far less than he did in brilliantly adapting Dick King-Smith for Babe. What’s hopefully next is an alternative companion piece to the film, preferably in the form of a documentary. Such works better fulfilled the respective biopics of lady icons Heidi Fleiss and Aileen Wuornos, and there ought to be more to know about this wacky broad Beatrix Potter. V
Opens Fri, Jan 19
Directed by Chris Noonan
Written by Richard Maltby jr
Starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn
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