"Miss Potter" is twee. The characters are twee, the story is twee, the sets are twee, everything about it is twee. The film is only 92 minutes long, yet it's more than an hour before anything resembling a conflict shows up. If the point was to make a biopic about Beatrix Potter that resembled, in all its cuteness and civility and modest whimsy, one of her bedtime stories, then I suppose that goal has been met. But honestly, even the extremely simple "Peter Rabbit" has more going on than this.
Renee Zellweger, looking even more pinched and scrunched than usual, plays Miss Potter, the 32-year-old daughter of social climbers in London circa 1900. Beatrix is unmarried, which embarrasses her mother (Barbara Flynn), and persists in writing and illustrating cute children's stories, which embarrasses her mother even more. (Father, played by Bill Paterson, is a bit more supportive.) Beatrix succeeds in getting a publishing house to buy her "Peter Rabbit" book, and the man assigned to shepherd her through the process, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) -- younger brother of the two Warnes who do all the real work at the firm -- is delighted beyond all reason by Beatrix and her fanciful creations.
Norman and Beatrix become friends, too, after a fashion, and Norman's sister, Millie (Emily Watson), also unmarried, becomes a confidante of Beatrix's. Since she is unmarried, Beatrix must be chaperoned at all times by the ancient Miss Wiggin (Matyelok Gibbs), and everyone behaves with the utmost propriety. The less savory aspects of London life that existed in this period are disregarded in favor of Edwardian drawing rooms, sherry-sipping Christmas parties, and people being asked over for tea. Life is prim and decent and stiff-upper-lipped.
Oh, and boring. There is a certain charm in seeing everyone behave with such impeccable manners, and it's nice that London is so taken with Beatrix's delightsome drawings, but does it all have to be so stagnant and unmoving? Broadway lyricist and director Richard Maltby Jr. ("Miss Saigon," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Fosse"), writing his first screenplay, fills people's mouths with dialogue that is ever-so-kind and congenial, yet utterly lacking in significance. It might as well be 90 minutes of people talking about the weather.
Well, 60 minutes. The plot does eventually arrive at a conflict of some kind, and there is fallout from that. Too little too late, though. Beatrix Potter is pleasant enough -- hell, the whole thing is PLEASANT enough -- but even when there is sadness, it's a sort of glossy, pristine sadness, without any weight behind it.
This is the first film Chris Noonan has directed since "Babe," and no, I'm not going to make the joke about how Renee Zellweger looks like a pig. (Give me a little credit.) "Miss Potter" isn't bad; it's lovely to look at it, and it has a certain whimsy that sustains it for the first 30 minutes or so. But it's too lightweight and decorous to be very pleasurable. Who are these characters REALLY, and what makes them tick? Noonan managed to answer those questions when they applied to farm animals, so it's shame he couldn't pull it off with people.