Beatrix Potter is the best-selling children's book author of all time, according to a tag at the end of Miss Potter, the new bio-pic about her. And yet, if you took the film's word for everything, you'd also believe that Potter was potty -- that she was a slightly insane artist and author of stories about bunnies, ducks, and hedgehogs, a woman who saw the animals as friends and really believed that her drawings of them came to life before her eyes and interacted with her. Or you'd believe that, short of madness, Potter was prone to hitting the laudanum.
Miss Potter opens in the early-20th-century London bedroom/studio of Beatrix. The camera shows the period paintbrushes, period paints, period paper, and period porcelain palette of an artist at work. And then the camera pulls back to reveal the very non-period Texan, Renée Zellweger. Just like that, as soon as Zellweger opens her clenched jaw to utter her first supposedly Brit-inflected syllables, the film suffers a mortal wound -- and all those periods become question marks.
As the plot unfolds, Potter is already a 30-plus unmarried woman who lives in the attic of her parent's house, an old maid and a bit of a shame to the family. She has not married despite her mother's best efforts to match her with a suitably class-equivalent mate.
But Potter would much rather tend to her stories and paintings in her attic: tales about the naughty Peter Rabbit and other animal-kingdom rapscallions and daffy dos. She pitches a children's book to Frederick Warne & Co. publishers, and the Warne brothers decide to foist her little bunny book upon their younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor), who wants a taste of the family business after years of playing housemaid for their infirm mother. A sister, Millie (Emily Watson), who is also unmarried and into her 30s, rounds out the Warne warren. The Potter/Warne union proves to be a highly successful venture, and soon enough Beatrix is amassing a fortune and Norman is falling in love.
McGregor seems willing to rise to the occasion, but Zellweger is just a mess, and the script regularly falters. McGregor is forced to smile bemusedly at Potter's whimsical drawings and her dippy conversations with them, and no one could raise a line like "I find I love my heart more now, because that is where I can find you" from the dead.
The closest Miss Potter comes to interesting is in dealing with Potter as a feminist, refusing to be the model of wifedom by keeping a social calendar and running a home. The film touches on issues of domestic enslavement and childbearing, and it does suggest a proto-room-of-one's-own theory of the woman as artist. But the feminism is only skin-deep, a period fancy with a conclusion that would probably rub period feminists a little raw, much less today's.
Miss Potter does not contain a single child character other than Beatrix and her brother in flashback. The result, a film full of adults who laugh at the sight of a rabbit in a coat and a duck in a shawl, with nary a kid around, makes the characters all look a little loopy, even unseemly. Miss Potter is a portrait of an artist as a daft woman, and her lunacy is catching.
Originally scheduled to open Friday, February 2nd, the release has been postponed to later in the month.