- Plucky, whimsical, and squinty do not an actress (or a film) make
Directed by Chrs Noonan
With Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, and Emily Watson
Contrary to its title and ostensible subject matter, director Chris Noonan's Miss Potter really has little to do with Beatrix Potter, beloved illustrator and author of children's perennials such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Actually, it really has little to do with the entirety of Renée Zellweger — playing the famous English woman the film isn't really much about — but instead banks viewer interest entirely on just how long we can stand to look at Zellweger's overly familiar squint, seen endlessly in fawning close-up, and meant here to represent pluck or whimsy and sometimes even both. But, whatever. About five minutes into the movie, we've had it with The Squint, and, ten minutes later, with the film within which it squints to such monumental lack of effect.
Really, this is a film so empty of story, information, emotion, event, or action it borders on the ambient. One easily imagines more wealthy viewers playing in their country manors an eternal loop of it on jumbotron HDTV screens as visual accompaniment to a nice high tea, with little worry of visitors' interest straying from the movie's endless shots of a mysteriously sunny English landscapes, and even less regarding its nominal protagonist.
Even when the film's sole human-ish character, a publishing manqué and possible Potter suitor played by the impossible-to-dislike Ewan McGregor meets a sorry end, said end happens off-screen and is greeted by Miss Potter by about three minutes of tasteful woe, after which she returns to her usual pluck, whimsy, or whatever. The Squint abides.
Mention of this does not constitute a spoiler. Indeed, McGregor's scant time on-screen suggests a two-day holiday gig marked less by passionate moments with his female lead — actually, there are none of these — than by the distracting spectacle of the actor laboring with a remarkably silly-looking fake mustache affixed to his upper lip.
Anyway, after McGregor's exit, the movie goes on. And on. At entirely random junctures, Potter's drawings come to animated life, caper gaily about the page, and then, like the movie they're in, resign themselves to stillness.
And then, because all things, good, bad, and indifferent must end, so too does the film, at an entirely random juncture replete with a superimposed title card that inaccurately assures us that not much will happen during the rest of Potter's life. In fact, Potter's life was filled with event — with more than 20 books behind her, she purchased of vast amounts of land in the British countryside and became a sheep breeder (!) and farmer with a successful marriage, all of which would be terrific fodder for a real happy-ending tale. In comparison, Potter's youth seems dull, a quality that seems to be like catnip to the filmmakers.
Still, for those of us whose partial job description entails telling folks what a film is about, Miss Potter is a godsend. The film is about a squinty, plucky, and whimsical well-off British woman who, sometime in a century not the 20th or 21st, drew pictures of animals, tried to get a book of said pictures published, encountered mild resistance from the one publishing house she apparently visited with the idea, and, thanks to a man's urge to get in her heart and/or bloomers, became famous.
And so much for synopsis. Filling time are those aforementioned dewy landscape shots, the occasional huffing from Miss Potter's parents about impropriety, McGregor stumbling around in that adorable Moulin Rouge way of his, and the occasional girl-chat with feisty friend Emily Watson, who at first seems a proto-feminist, but perhaps out of concern for impressionable red state children viewers, ends up rejecting her independence. And if the filmmakers harbor any ambition of repurposing their Potter — leisure class rich, with nothing to lose, and facing nothing more stringent than mild huffiness as adversity — as women empowerment icon, we have but one word: Please.