In Miss Potter, a sweet middlebrow confection that isn’t done any favors by that generic schoolmarm title, Renée Zellweger, as the English children’s author Beatrix Potter, pushes her skewed pixie features well past their usual scrunchiness. Her eyes squint into slits, her cheeks are tiny pillows, and when she smiles, her lips grow so round and puckered that it’s as if her entire face were trying to turn into a Christmas cookie. She might almost be playing Miss Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies, except that there’s nothing very neurotic about her kitschy-koo grimaces. When you read The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other Potter books, what strikes you about the drawings and stories is how unprecious they are. The animals aren’t sickly cute — they’re funny in their dignity — and they inhabit a world of hidden perils. Zellweger plays their inventor as a blissed-out naïf, an arrested virtuoso of innocence who feeds on the girlish feelings that can still thrive in a grown woman.
In London at the end of the 19th century, Beatrix, who leads a sheltered existence in the home of her wealthy parents, spends most of her waking hours in her bedroom, sitting in front of an easel, where she communes with the drawings she makes of her best friends — imaginary civilized critters, like Peter Rabbit in his blue coat or Jemima Puddle-Duck in her bonnet, whom she renders in lovely, lyric strokes of watercolor dabbed onto elegant pencil drawings. They’re her daydreams made real, and in the film they come to life right on the page, moving around and talking to her.
The director, Chris Noonan, is the man who directed Babe, a movie that also regarded talking animals as the most natural thing in the world. Creativity, as Beatrix experiences it, takes no effort; it’s merely a matter of transcribing her imagination. We’re cued to see that she’s sublimating her adult impulses (like any desire for a suitor), yet the mild novelty of the movie is that it sees nothing at all dark or unhealthy in that. Miss Potter is so old-fashioned its spirit seems almost new, spun out of a cozy Victorian worldview that takes on a pre-Freudian luster. The movie is a vision of happiness, of staying true to the bunny rabbits — the child — scampering around in your heart.
I’ve seen period pieces a lot less charming than Miss Potter, yet there’s an oddity to the movie: As you watch, you’re carried along by Zellweger’s dotty eccentric glow, yet where’s the conflict, the drama? Beatrix, who has been selling her anthropomorphic illustrations to greeting-card companies, takes them to a family-owned book publisher, where she’s foisted off on the youngest son, an editor of no experience named Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). His absolute naïveté regarding the book business turns out to be his greatest asset, since it allows him to see Beatrix, and her drawings, with open eyes. McGregor wears a huge, wide broom of a mustache, yet it can’t conceal his jovial twinkle. This is the second time he has played opposite Zellweger (they were the synthetic-’60s-movie adversaries in Down With Love), and once again these two bring out the flirty romance in each other. Beatrix also becomes friends with Norman’s sister, a feminist in neckties played by Emily Watson as the Annie Hall of spinsters. (Is Watson losing her radiance or has she just been cowed by a rather unflattering role?)
When Norman proposes to Beatrix, it’s almost as if he were asking to take her out of a nunnery, and her tearful, solitary dance of joy is the film’s most moving moment. She accepts his offer, but there’s an issue: Her stuffed-shirt parents are aghast at the thought of her marrying herself down — to a tradesman, no less. The horror! If there’s any aspect of high society that will seem all but incomprehensible to modern audiences, it’s the way a perfectly respectable middle-class gentleman could be regarded as a leper because he doesn’t come with an inheritance. Nevertheless, even this stumbling block gets shoved aside, as Beatrix bows to the will of her parents and agrees to postpone the engagement for the entire summer, to test whether her feelings are true.
Since the audience, drawn by that Zellweger-McGregor love connection, has no doubt that they are, the question still nags: Where’s the drama? There’s a dark turn I won’t reveal, but Miss Potter, right to the end, is the definition of a nice movie, and that makes it a genuine oddball in a universe of increasingly distressed and uncivilized pop culture. By the end, you do have to wonder if you’re getting the whole story. Mightn’t there have been a little vice, as well as virtue, in a woman who talks to pretend rabbits?