Sunday, January 14, 2007

Beatrix Potter and the dignified biopic

I didn't expect to like Miss Potter as much as I ultimately did. Going in, I knew next to nothing about Beatrix Potter's life, and nothing in her books, or in the previews I saw for this movie, suggested that her life story would be particularly worth telling. But credit goes to Richard Maltby Jr. for recognizing that there is an interesting, if gentle, story here, and credit goes to everyone else involved for ensuring that it is so well toldalthough I could have done without all the twee animation and precocious storytelling and too-literal talking-to-the-animals. Peter Rabbit and co. literally scamper through this movie, threatening to weigh it down with too much whimsy every time it starts to come into its own dramatically. The setting may be Edwardian London, but this isn't Mary Poppins, and I'd have preferred to see Potter depicted as richly creative, rather than mildly schizophrenic. Fewer hallucinations, and a little less eye-twinkling and nose-wrinkling, might have helped to support the notion that she was a competent professional, unfairly dismissed by her family; as depicted here, she seems like exactly the sort of relative you'd want to keep out of the public eye, for her own good. Also, I was annoyed by the suggestion (in flashbacks) that Potter's artistic abilities were fully formed by the time she was ten years old; surely her childhood sketches of Jemima Puddle-Duck and co. could look a bit rougher than the professionally printed versions?

But these complaints were about what I expected from Miss Potterthe surprise for me was how much I enjoyed the movie anyway. It is so refreshingly sweet and simplea true "family" film, not a wisecrack in sight; you could take your seven-year-old and your great-grandmother to it without ever blushing, which is more than I can say for Shrek 3 (I'm guessing), and the best part is, all of you would thoroughly enjoy it. And whenever the silliness with the animated animals started to push me away, I was drawn back in by the bracing realism of the actors' appearances. Most period films take care that their actors be perfectly made up, like china dolls; in this case, Renée Zellweger looked like she did her hair herself, and wore no makeup at all. In other words, she looked like an actual person, a great asset considering she was playing an actual person. In the first twenty minutes or so, her Beatrix is a very likeable, if not very remarkable, and slightly daffy woman; Zellweger supplies her with depth beyond what the script implies. The real-life Potter was, apparently, shy, and her suitor, played very endearingly by Ewan McGregor, is likewise shy, and so they go for many shy walks and smile shyly at each other, and just when you begin to worry that maybe Beatrix Potter's life wasn't interesting enough to qualify for the major-motion-picture treatment after all, the camera finds Emily Watson, even more unkempt and flushed than Zellweger, whose wonderful performance provides exactly the burst of life the movie needs. Her character is also an eccentric, but Watson makes her the most believable in the entire film, and the two women's scenes together are intelligent enough to make you forget that, elsewhere in the movie, an animated duck wearing a sunbonnet shook its behind at you.

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