There are many reasons the story of Beatrix Potter should be catnip both to Hollywood and movie audiences everywhere: a chance to learn the back story of the most beloved of all children's books, a tale of a woman artist's fight against condescension. Then there's an elegant Edwardian setting, with all its sartorial and decorative curiosities. Perhaps this embarrassment of riches accounts for the scattershot approach of Chris Noonan's "Miss Potter."
While the film is a pleasure to look at, with its abundance of lush Lake District scenery and scrupulously re-created costumes, it never settles down to a consistent tone or a consistent view of its heroine. It can't decide if it's telling a serious story of a real woman or just giving us the legend of that elfin charmer who brought dressed-up bunnies to life. Both approaches have their virtues, and both yield some results here, but the combination makes for something of a muddle.
"Miss Potter" covers the early years of the author's success, from the time she first lands a publisher to the beginning of her second career as preserver of the countryside and pioneer in the fight against suburban sprawl. When we meet Miss Potter (Renée Zellweger), she is over 30, regarded as something of a spinster, still living with her parents in their handsome London townhouse. No one except her doting father (the always beguiling Bill Paterson) takes her stories or watercolors seriously; even her dour publishers take the book on merely as a harmless occupation for their green kid brother, Norman (a very well-scrubbed, generously mustachioed Ewan McGregor). When Norman threatens to become something more to Beatrix than just her publisher, her work opens the door not merely to financial independence from her parents, but also to the world of adult emotion as well.
In the early sequences, Zellweger's Beatrix oscillates between twitches and transports. When her face isn't screwed up as if in wretched anticipation of kissing something nasty, it's aglow with the ecstasy of a fanatic. When she gazes at her drafting table, her designs come to fully animated life, often in a way contrasting with the staid demeanor of her familiar creations. (At one particularly discordant point, Jemima Puddle-duck wiggles her tail feathers in Norman's direction so as to leave no doubt of her intentions.) Are we witnessing the wonders of the imagination or signs of looming psychosis? Zellweger's performance is so intermittently peculiar that it's difficult to tell. Moreover, it's a challenge to square her eccentricities with the exacting professional who emerges, as if out of nowhere, in her debates with the lithographers over printing techniques and color intensity.
The central drama involves Beatrix's related struggles to get her parents' respect and to get them to accept her engagement to Norman. His status as a mere "tradesman" appalls the social-climbing parents, who themselves are just a generation or two removed from the stain of commerce. Even the benign Mr. Potter withholds his immediate consent, with sad results. This is serious business, but any real sense of gravity is dispelled by the cartoonish depiction of Mrs. Potter (Barbara Flynn), who emerges as a harpy intent on smothering everyone around her with her unrelenting pettiness. When she takes center stage, the level of social criticism and psychological portraiture shifts from "Howard's End" to "Mary Poppins."
What most brings out the sense of partly missed opportunities is the presence of the accomplished Emily Watson, who plays Norman's unwed sister. Dressed in the most masculine female attire of the period, complete with starched collar, striped tie and a puffy blouse that endows her shoulders with the bulk of a linebacker, she attaches herself to Beatrix with a will and soon is lecturing her on the blessedness of life without men. Just what these broad hints of an entirely different sort of love story are doing in the picture remains a mystery, but the fire and coherence of Watson's performance, although a pleasure, tantalizes us with the thought of what she could have made of the title role.
But that is another story. (PG) 92 min. *** S