by HELEN GEIB
Miss Potter, a biopic of children’s author Beatrix Potter, begins and closes with panoramic views of the landscape of the famed Lake District in Cumbria, England. The picture postcard shots are lovely, but only provide glimpses of the wild, varied and profound beauty of the place. They are a fitting metaphor for a movie that is content to merely skim the surface of its subject’s life.
Miss Potter dutifully chronicles the audience-friendly highlights of Potter’s life: Born into a leisured-class London family. Spent childhood summers in the English countryside, most notably the Lake District. Self-taught artist who painted watercolors of charming and whimsical anthropomorphic farmyard and countryside animals. Penned delightful little children’s books that became unmatched best-sellers. Defied societal norms and parents’ disapproval through love affair with publisher. Suffered personal tragedy. Retired to beloved Lake District and became avid land conservationist.
As I was watching Miss Potter I had the feeling I was reading a lavishly illustrated encyclopedia entry. To test the validity of this reaction, I looked up Beatrix Potter on Wikipedia before starting this review. I discovered the real life was considerably more interesting, and in particular more intellectually focused, than the fictionalized account. It is unfortunately common for biopics to trivialize their subjects, and for biopics of women to foreground personal romantic fulfillment and disappointment over public aspirations and achievement.
The movie touches on several potentially very interesting themes raised by Potter’s life. These themes include avenues of rebellion against class and gender-based expectations; early feminist advocacy of personal fulfillment outside the home; artistic innovation and control in commercial publishing; and pioneering ideas of land valuation and conservation. The film’s principal failing is its failure to meaningfully engage any of these themes, preferring instead to structure its story as a romance-driven star vehicle for Renee Zellweger.
Miss Potter is especially conservative in its depiction of Potter as an artist. While the film shows her as emotionally devoted to her work, it does not portray her as a serious artist or writer. The filmmakers fall back onto the comedy tradition of the British eccentric, presenting Potter as a charmingly cracked upper class English lady who talks to her painted animals as they frolic on the page under her brush. Whether the inspiration or the post-facto perfect casting choice, Zellweger’s familiar screen persona is well attuned to this conception of her character.
The film co-stars Ewan McGregor in the role of principal love interest. The script calls on him to be charming, and he is (extremely so). Emily Watson is given little to do in the best friend role. The art direction is the only other character of any note.
Watching Miss Potter was not an unpleasant experience. It is a pretty, sometimes amusing, competently made film. Judging by the gushing comments I overheard as I left the theater, it’s a crowdpleaser. But it is a very superficial film, and does not do Miss Potter justice.