- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

Helen Beatrix Potter, the writer and illustrator of such classic children’s books as “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” was an extraordinary woman. One of the first authors to capitalize on her success, she started what is now a veritable cottage industry of Peter Rabbit merchandise. Rejected as a student at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew on the basis of her sex, she nonetheless made many contributions to natural science.

But you wouldn’t know that from watching “Miss Potter,” the new film based on her life.

“Miss Potter” doesn’t quite know what movie it’s trying to be. The repeated references to Potter’s marital status, for example, suggest that the film is a feminist ode to a talented woman. The story opens in 1902. Potter (Renee Zellweger) is 36 years old, but must suffer the indignity of being followed everywhere by an older chaperone (a comical Matyelok Gibbs).

Potter describes herself as an “unmarried woman traipsing around from publisher to publisher with a gaggle of friends.” Those friends are Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter Rabbit. Potter’s book has been rejected by numerous publishers but is finally accepted by brothers Frederick and Harold Warne. They — like most everyone else — don’t take her seriously. They’re publishing her book to give their younger brother something to do.

Here the movie changes from a story about a single woman’s struggles to make it as an artist in Edwardian times to a romance. Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) knows that his brothers have respect neither for him nor Potter’s book. “We shall give them a bunny book to conjure with,” he declares to Potter in the film’s best line. They do — and fall in love in the process. Potter’s snobbish parents don’t approve of the match, setting the stage for conflict of a different sort.

Miss Zellweger successfully conveys the unmixed exuberance of the newly successful artist, and the British accent of the “Bridget Jones” films’ star is serviceable. Unfortunately, Miss Zellweger’s odd eye-squinting tic has gotten worse throughout her career; here, it’s almost unbearable. Could she even see those small books she illustrated?

Worse, her Potter has little depth. It’s little wonder director Chris Noonan and screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. ignored so many of Potter’s accomplishments: Who’d believe this slightly dotty girl wrote an important paper on lichens?

British actress Emily Watson shines in a small role as an independent-minded Warne sister. She would have been better cast as Potter herself — Miss Watson gave an arresting performance as another singular artist, cellist Jacqueline du Pre, in 1998’s “Hilary and Jackie.”

The rest of the British cast also make much of their supporting roles. Mr. McGregor, who starred opposite Miss Zellweger in 2003’s “Down with Love,” is pleasantly jaunty and earnest. Bill Paterson (also in “Hilary and Jackie”) and Barbara Flynn (HBO’s “Elizabeth I”) transcend the cliches of the warm father and cold mother.

Mr. Noonan’s last film was 1995’s “Babe.” There are a few whimsical touches here: Potter’s creations come to life at intervals, but only to their illustrator. It’s too bad we don’t see more shots of the natural beauty that inspired her to draw them.

At times, the filmmakers succeed in the difficult task of dramatizing the writer’s life for the screen; one is the animated discussion in which Potter and Warne decide on the innovative format of the “Peter Rabbit” books. If only “Miss Potter” had been so unconventional.

**1/2

TITLE: “Miss Potter”

RATING: PG (brief mild language)

CREDITS: Directed by Chris Noonan. Written by Richard Maltby Jr.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: www.misspotter-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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