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January 12, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | January 12, 2007 |

I’m relatively new to these parts, so forgive the presumption, but I don’t think there’s a single reader of this site who would pay their hard-earned (or freshly stolen) money to see Miss Potter, the new biopic of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter. So the space below might be better used to assess the president’s latest effort to salvage Iraq or to rail against the lack of a college football playoff system (it can never be done enough). But those subjects wouldn’t allow me to discourse on this movie’s most perplexing and insurmountable problem, an annoyance that demands our urgent attention: RenĂ©e Zellweger ‘s face.

I’ve often marveled at Zellweger’s ability to be far less irritating in her movie roles than she is in real life — on Letterman or Leno’s couch, say, where she always looks like she just sent a Gummy Bear down the wrong pipe. But here, from the opening bell, she’s in fully pinched mode. Her mouth is a constantly contorted, self-consciously scrunched-up thing, and I’m going to have nightmares about it for weeks. This is not a shallow complaint about her beauty or lack thereof. It’s a complaint about her … Zellwegerness. I can’t remember another time when I failed for even one moment to get swept up in a character and forget the actor in question. This is especially problematic because Beatrix Potter was real, and really British, which Zellweger most decidedly is not. The accent she forces out of the barely opened sides of that aforementioned mouth is only slightly more tolerable than the child-like Texas twang she sports when playing herself.

Maybe I’m getting carried away. I really have respected some of Zellweger’s work up to this point, so perhaps it’s unfair to place her at the center of this tribunal. The movie’s other glaring problem is its script, an aggressively pro-happiness document that features perky happiness, career happiness, feminist happiness, even happiness spun fresh from the loom of heartbreaking tragedy. Picture the white-hot center of Rachael Ray’s brain, but much happier.

Now picture Ewan McGregor in a ridiculous mustache. He plays Norman Warne, the youngest of three brothers who run a family publishing business. Norman is new to the game, with all the savvy and skill of a baby seal, so his brothers hand him Potter to keep him occupied and away from breakables. They don’t believe her bunny-centric work is worth a damn, but of course, the joke’s on them, because her debut, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, goes on to make her a very wealthy woman. In the process, she falls in love with Norman, who eventually asks her to marry him (in a scene that’s actually kind of cute — there, I said it). Given their wide-eyed innocence, it seems very likely neither of them has been in love to this point in their lives. It’s quite possible neither of them has ever been naked.

Beatrix’s mother, Helen (Barbara Flynn), is a cartoonish shrew who protests her only girl’s desire to marry a “tradesman.” To the very end, even as Beatrix’s fame and bank account balloon, Helen condescendingly disapproves of her “children’s stories.” Unfortunately (and surely not intended), the audience can be forgiven for similar feelings, because in Zellweger’s hands (and face), Potter’s essential goodness comes off as daffy silliness, the stories she recites to various audiences about rabbits less enchanting than mind-numbing.

Miss Potter doesn’t know what type of bad movie it wants to be. A bad children’s movie? Well, there are several scenes in which Potter imagines her drawings animated on the page and earnestly addresses them in a baby voice. An inspiring tale of the mentally challenged? Well, there are several scenes in which Potter imagines her drawings animated on the page and earnestly addresses them in a baby voice. Emotional porn for a certain type of middle-aged female? There’s enough sugar-coated romance here to cause rapid-onset diabetes.

The shame of all this is that the real Beatrix Potter seems both decent and fascinating, a combination that doesn’t get much attention in Hollywood. In addition to her success as an author, she spent the last part of her life buying and preserving farmland (between that and her independent streak, liberals would love this movie, if only it wasn’t the type of movie liberals hate). If Kate Winslet had taken the role, and if they added 45 minutes or an hour of characterization, and if things weren’t so suffocatingly sweet all the time, and if Potter’s art were presented more seriously, this might have been something. That’s a lot of ifs, though, and I left several out.

Miss Potter was directed by Chris Noonan, who was last behind the camera for Babe in 1995. He’s not solely, or even primarily responsible for this mess. But you would think 12 years would be enough time to choose a worthy follow-up project. Maybe next time he should take 20.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

The Tale of the Scrunched-Up Face

Miss Potter / John Williams

Film | January 12, 2007 |

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