A film of no little charm, Chris Noonan’s Miss Potter never quite gets out of “Biopic Basic” mode despite occasional murmurings of a desire to be something more. Early on in the film, a device is introduced where Beatrix’s drawings and watercolors have a tendency to spring to animated life, and this is magically expanded upon when young Beatrix (newcomer Lucy Boynton) looks out a window to see her parents depart for a party—in a pumpkin coach drawn by gigantic white rabbits. It’s the most startling and delightful moment in the film. Unfortunately, while the animated drawings continue throughout the film, this is the only time Noonan’s film allows itself such a bout of full-blown fancifulness. And that’s a true shame, because this one moment is what the rest of the film sadly lacks.
Without laying claim to being a Potter scholar, I know enough to say that the film is a reasonably faithful depiction of the essential facts of her life, which is perhaps more than can be said for a lot of biopics. The problem is that the facts are there, but they’ve all been smoothed of any rough edges and feel like they’ve all been dutifully trotted out to present a picture of Potter’s life that would be quite suitable for elementary school children. After all, Potter is a beloved author of children’s books, so why shouldn’t she be presented in a simplistic and sanitized manner? Well, no reason, I suppose, except that it doesn’t make her a very interesting person for anyone past the age of elementary school. It’s fairly common knowledge, for example, that Potter, especially later on, was something of a curmudgeon, but there’s no hint of that here—not even a hint that she might develop as such later.
As with the fantasy elements, Miss Potter‘s story often gets near a suggestion of something more, and then shies away or simply pretends nothing of the sort ever happened. Look at the early scenes between the adult Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) and her publisher’s sister Millie (Emily Watson). At first Millie is played as not only emancipated in the extreme, but downright mannish—to a point that their first outing strongly hints that Millie is romantically attracted to Beatrix. A few scenes later when the publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), asks Beatrix to marry him, and Beatrix seeks Millie’s advice, we suddenly find Millie all gung ho on the topic of matrimony, brushing off her earlier remarks with a “What else is an unmarried woman supposed to say?” It’s not just weak, it feels like a film that’s being dishonest—like one that went too far outside the realm of A&E Biography, suddenly realized it, and quickly backpedaled to the safety of the cliché.
While this sort of thing works against the film, Miss Potter manages to be palatable entertainment—if not exactly exciting. This is thanks to a combination of the charm of its lead players—Zellweger, McGregor, Watson and Brit TV actor Lloyd Owen—the wonders of England’s Lake District and cinematographer Andrew Dunn’s (The History Boys) ability to create images that have something of the fresh watercolor appeal of Potter’s illustrations. There are also little touches—like the fact that Beatrix’s illustrations seem to have the same kind of animated life for her future husband that they do for her—that imbue the film with a sweetness of spirit that almost overrides its shortcomings as either drama or a full portrait of its heroine. Almost. Rated PG for brief mild language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke