Renée Zellweger's name doesn't often get tossed around as one of Hollywood's finer actresses, but she routinely challenges herself with diverse, and comparatively ego-free, roles. From the dirty-faced farmhand in Cold Mountain to the slightly voluptuous Bridget Jones, Zellweger has shown a refreshing willingness to test herself. That streak continues in the charming period piece Miss Potter, in which she plays Beatrix Potter, the best-selling children's book author of all time.
Zellweger's Beatrix Potter is a modern-day women trapped in the Victorian England of the early 1900s. At the then-ripe old age of 32, she defies societal pressures by rejecting any interest in matrimony. It is not for her family's lack of trying. When she was in her 20s, Beatrix's social-climbing parents tried matching her with a number of suitors before finally giving up in frustration.
Strong-willed and fiercely independent, Beatrix Potter has other pursuits in mind. She goes to London in hopes of finding a publisher for her illustrations of Peter Rabbit, one of the many anthropomorphized animals she draws and considers to be her friends. The spinster finds a reluctant publishing house with two stodgy brothers, Harold and Fruing Warne.
As it turns out, the Warnes only agree to publish what they disparagingly call her "bunny book" in an effort to preoccupy their twittery younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor), a newcomer to the family business. But Norman is altogether charmed by Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and the rest of Miss Potter's illustrated menagerie. "We shall give them a bunny book to conjure with!" he tells the novice author. And he is right. "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" becomes a tremendous bestseller, the first of Beatrix Potter's 23 children's books.
Beatrix does not merely bristle against the societal rigidity of Victorianism; she flat-out refuses to acknowledge its severe parameters. She finds a kindred spirit in Norman's sister, Millie (the always excellent Emily Watson), who has sworn off the married life. Millie is not opposed to romance, however, and she encourages the budding relationship between Beatrix and Norman.
While Beatrix's parents are eager for their daughter to marry, they are horrified by the notion that she would marry outside her class. Her attachment to the awkward, kindly Norman does not sit well with Beatrix's upper-crust mother (Barbara Flynn). "I wish you wouldn't invite tradespeople into the house," Helen Potter scolds her recalcitrant daughter. "They carry dirt."
Miss Potter is not a subtle flick, but its lack of complexity is made up for by genuine heart. Director Chris Noonan, whose credits include 1995's Babe, prefers big crowd-pleasing moments, complete with you-go-girl theatrics and Nigel Westlake's overly cutesy musical cues. But if you accept the film on its own terms, you might just shed a few layers of cynicism.
Zellweger, who took on the title role after Cate Blanchett had to bow out of the project, anchors Beatrix Potter with grittiness -- albeit Union Jack-style -- that keeps the character from dissolving into pure eccentricity. She finds a perfect pitch between drama and light comedy.
In fact, Zellweger almost pulls off one of the movie's more curious decisions, that of having Miss Potter's drawings come alive on the sketchpad when only the artist can see them. It is meant to be delightfully whimsical, but the episodes feel out of place here and inadvertently give one the impression that perhaps Beatrix Potter was in need of medication.
The anamorphic widescreen print is sparkling, and it does justice to Andrew Dunn's gorgeous, pastel-drenched cinematography. In 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the Miss Potter DVD boasts rich detail, a vivid color palette and realistic skin tones. The only noticeable problem -- and it's a slight one -- is minor grain in a few darkly lit scenes.
Captured in a 5.1 mix, the sound is crisp, full and makes decent use of rear speakers. An audio track is also available in French, with optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
Chris Noonan's commentary is smart and engaging, but be prepared for some long stretches of dead air.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter taps a variety of interviewees for an informative look at the woman and her impressive legacy as both a children's book author and a naturalist. In an interesting side note, the 20-minute, 11-second featurette also highlights the genius she showed in marketing her illustrated creations, making her a sort of precursor to Walt Disney.
The 22-minute, 16-second Miss Potter: The Making of a Real-Life Fairy Tale includes interviews with cast and crew for a comprehensive view of the film. While the comments veer toward the everything-was-rosy side, it is still of interest.
Rounding out the supplemental material is a theatrical trailer and a music video (!) of Katie Melva performing "When You Taught Me How to Dance."
Anchored by the performances of Ewan McGregor and especially Renée Zellweger, Miss Potter is a winning, often enchanting biopic of a modern-day woman trapped in Victorian-era England. Hardcore cynics might roll their eyes at this stuff, but those willing to meet it halfway are likely to be charmed.