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As the Oscars approach, so do the number of literary movies, which means lots of British accents, some of them even authentic. Beyond that confluence, however, the streams diverge. While the standard lit flick is adapted from a noted book, others purport to tell the stories of famed authors; and where some are as comfy as a fire-lit drawing room, others are considerably dingier. The genre’s range could hardly be wider than it is this week: Miss Potter is the sweet tale of a woman who turns her private reveries about jacket-wearing bunnies into an industry that endures a century later, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is the dark fable of a man who obtains the essences of young women by killing them.
Miss Potter is the fictionalized biography of an author who was faithful to her inner child but strong-willed enough to maintain her vision in the face of adult skepticism. This might seem an awkward mix of kiddie and grown-up fare, but then that unlikely blend is exactly what director Chris Noonan achieved in his last film, Babe, 11 years ago. This time, he’s very nearly done it again. Scripted by stage-musical veteran Richard Maltby Jr,. Miss Potter is a glib fantasy of Edwardian life. Yet it should charm anyone who isn’t allergic to anthropomorphic animals—or its girlish, sour-faced star, Renée Zellweger.
The movie opens with a set of hands doing watercolors of the bucolic Lake District and Zellweger’s voice-over, remarking that beginning to tell a story is always “delicious.” Miss Potter contrives a tragedy for its final act, but mostly it concentrates on the delicious aspects of its protagonist’s life: success as an author, true love with a gentle and supportive man, and triumph over her detractors, the most significant of whom is Beatrix’s mother (Barbara Flynn)—the model, we’re led to believe, for Peter Rabbit’s own cantankerous mom.
Raised in London, young Beatrix Potter (Lucy Boynton) comes fully to life only during her family’s summers in the Lake District. (Characteristically, the Potters take this annual pilgrimage, begun when Beatrix was 10, not because her mother loves the country but because it’s what other fashionable London clans do.) In 1902, now a spinster at the Bridget Jones–ish age of 32, Beatrix submits to a London publisher the fruits of her drawing and dreaming: The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Led to expect rejection by the brusque manner of Harold and Fruing Warne (Anton Lesser and David Bamber), the would-be author is thrilled when her “bunny book” is accepted.
The Warne brothers’ secret motivation is that they need something to occupy the time of their apparently useless younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor). But it turns out that Norman, just like Beatrix, has been underestimated. He has a plan for printing the book with color illustrations affordably, and the result is a publishing phenomenon. Beatrix assumes that her relationship with Norman has concluded with the appearance of the book, but he asks for more stories. Soon the two forge a personal as well as professional alliance, and Beatrix—who’s friendless except for “whenever I draw”—becomes close to Norman’s mildly bohemian sister Millie (Emily Watson). As the film ends, however, it appears that Beatrix’s most enduring relationship is with the Lake District, to which she moves permanently. Appalled that working farms are being devoured by residential development, Beatrix uses the riches earned by Benjamin Bunny and Jemima Puddleduck to start a one-woman land-conservation trust.
Despite engaging moments from Watson and Bill Paterson (as Beatrix’s indulgent, extravagantly mutton-chopped father), Miss Potter functions mostly as a duet between Zellweger and McGregor. The latter has never been smoother and smilier, not even when aping Rock Hudson in 2003’s Down With Love, his previous pairing with the actress. The two leads are clearly comfortable together, even if that wasn’t enough to persuade Zellweger to forgo her usual tics. But where McGregor’s Norman has nothing to do but adore his prized author, Zellweger’s Beatrix has another life: Her drawings come to life, for her eyes only, giving her a second role as the bunnies’ loving but occasionally stern aunt. (“And don’t talk too much,” she warns Peter before first presenting him to the Warnes.) These animated inserts could easily become too cute, but they pass quickly, like a wink or a wave from Beatrix’s other world.
That world is evoked not only by the fleeting appearances of Peter or Jemima, but by cinematography and production design that emulate the watercolor hues of Potter’s artwork. Like most films about authors, Miss Potter gets a little lost when it tries to conjure the process of creation. Whenever it shifts to the results of Potter’s efforts, however, the movie knows exactly where it is.