Movie Review: Reconsidering “Miss Potter”

I won’t say I was in a tiny minority of reviewers who praised the charms of “Miss Potter” when it came out in late 2006-early 2007. But I was a bit of an outlier in being swept away by its beauty, delicacy and melancholy romance.

Spruced up as a holiday season Weinstein Co. Oscar contender, the company’s money troubles and a general “over it” attitude about bullying Oscar campaigner and future #MeToo supervillain Harvey Weinstein and even its Oscar-winning star, Renee Zellweger, doomed it with critics and audiences alike.

Period pieces like this reek of “privilege,” which was mentioned in a few reviews years before that condemnation took over the culture.

But looking at it anew, I still connected with its many virtues, the innate sweetness of the characters and the approach — a genteel English “spinster” born into wealth whose perfectly-realized drawings come to animated life, in her mind, as her “friends” which she turns into books that all but invented “children’s literature.

Here’s what I wrote about it upon release. “With “Miss Potter,” Renee Zellweger has won back that precious thing that stardom rips away and the tabloids won’t let you reclaim: her charm.”

There was a lot going on in her post-“Cold Mountain”/”Bridget Jones” life back then, all of it overwhelming a perfectly weightless meringue of a movie. And in the years since, plastic surgery and an Oscar winning “comeback” (“Judy”) haven’t restored any of the appeal she could claim at the turn of the millennium.

But “Miss Potter” feels like a movie most of us swung at and “missed.”

These days, it plays as quaint and gloriously dated, an echo of a time when flawlessly-realized recreations of Edenic England were something worth striving for and films investors could be talked into. Zellweger and co-star Ewan McGregor can’t erase the years or the tabloid interest in their respective lives, but this movie can.

“Miss Potter” catches up with 32 year-old Beatrix in the early years of the last century, confident enough to take her “little book for children” — drawings and all — around to publishers who still weren’t used to dealing with women and could feign little interest in kid lit.

But a small publishing house run by brothers Harold and Fruing Warne (Anton Lesser and “Pride & Prejudice” alumnus David Bamber) fight the urge to dismiss her and take on this “Peter Rabbit” tale. It’ll give their nuisance, idle brother Norman (McGregor) something to do that won’t cost the family its fortune.

That amuses and pleases her father (the great Scot Bill Paterson) if not her snooty, socially-climbing mother (Barbara Flynn).

And when Beatrix meets the boyish but enthusiastic Norman, sparks fly as they find common ground in creating a book that combines, art, fancy, whimsy and thrift, one that most every family can afford.

As smitten as the two plainly are as they cook up the publishing phenomenon of the age, Beatrix’s true swept-off-her-feet moment comes when she meets Norman’s equally spinsterish sister, given a pent-up exuberance by Emily Watson.

“I must warn you, Miss Potter, I am more than prepared to like you!”

There are sparks there, too. But any hint of that sort of sexual tension remains that, a “hint.” This is about Beatrix breaking through in a man’s world, becoming a wealthy woman in her own right, showing just what someone born into wealth and comfort can accomplish with every advantage and the free time to polish a craft and create art.

The tension in this quite old-fashioned bio-pic is provided by her unpleasable mother, who never got over her inability to marry her off.

 “My mother and I have come to an understanding. We’ve agreed not understand each other.”

At least her indulgent father gets it.

“Our daughter is famous, Helen. You’re the only person who doesn’t know it.”

Her parents are only united when it comes to opposition to her marrying “a tradesman,” who happens to be charming, sweet on her and the main reason she’s rich enough to start shopping for farms in the Lake District.

No expense was spared in taking the production to that part of Cumbria where the Potters summered and which provided Beatrix with much of her inspiration for her stories of ever-so-English tiny creatures of the forests and fields.

The scenery here — they filmed in Scotland and the Isle of Man, as well as London and Cumbria — makes “Miss Potter” the best travel advertisement for the north of England ever put on film.

And the performances are almost unfailingly sweet, romantic with a heavy dose of Edwardian decorum and repression.

I may have been a bit over-the-top in my effusive praise for this in 2006. But if you’re still “over” Zellweger and McGregor, perhaps getting over being “over” them is in order. “Miss Potter” remains the perfect place to start.

MPA Rating: PG for brief mild language

Cast: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson

Credits: Directed by Chris Noonan, script by Richard Maltby Jr. A Weinstein Co release (now streaming via Lionsgate on assorted services

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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