Saturday, April 14, 2007

Miss Potter (2006)

Miss Potter (Chris Noonan, 2006)

Appreciation for Miss Potter would depend largely on one's tolerance for Renée Zellweger's acting skills. Ms. Zellweger divides audiences --- a portion adores her (guiltily, I assume), a more vocal portion hates her (and her consistently droopy-pouty facial expressions), while a small portion remain unaffected. I honestly don't care for her. I don't think she's an exceptional actress nor is she unbearably bad; I'm rather ambivalent as she had performances wherein she's authentically cute and lovely (Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996)), while there are times (a lot of times actually) where she borders on annoying (Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003), Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005) and Bridget Jones' Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), and its horrendous sequel). In Miss Potter, wherein she's almost in every frame of the film, one can't simply be ambivalent (or worse, hate her --- the film will be utter torture if you do); one actually has to like her for the film to work.

Surely, you might ask, it's just a performance, there are other facets to the film that might actually alleviate whatever bad taste Zellweger lends the film. I initially thought that. The film is after all directed by Chris Noonan, whose previous film Babe (1995) was such a lovely lovely confection. However, Noonan can only do so much. He does try to inject a amenable charm to the feature. He makes Beatrix Potter's drawings move and actually don slight personalities (Jemima Paddle-Duck flirtilly observes the facial features of Beatrix Potter's publisher). Yet, when Zellweger's Beatrix suddenly declares, in all her nonchalant mannerisms, that these drawings are her friends and actually talks to them, the gimmick simply doesn't bloom into eccentric sweetness. Instead, Beatrix looks like a genuine nut-case, a well-dressed schizophrenic.

Screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr.'s imagining of Beatrix Potter's life is slight and disposable. Moreover, Maltby seems unable to converge Beatrix's life-points into one coherent narrative. It starts out like a feminist manifesto about how this pre-20th century woman can remain single and find success by herself (that suddenly sounds like Bridget Jones in costume), then swoons into an uninteresting romance with the shy yet charming publisher (played with satisfactory conviction by Ewan McGregor) before ending as again, a feminist manifesto on how women can make a change in society. There's no consistent thread of thought; Maltby seems to think that his screenplay can float with mere socially relevant ideals without the help of masterful narrative.

It's quite unfortunate, really. Beatrix Potter's life can indeed be a feminist manifesto. She's that one woman who tried her hardest to substantiate her existence within a male-dominated and class-divided society (she had groundbreaking research on fungi which weren't seriously considered simply because of her being a woman --- conveniently forgotten in this biopic). However, the film seems to derive more pleasure in extending Zellweger's persona into Potter's biography. This film felt more like a star vehicle than an honest look into this intriguing historic woman and children's book author.

Miss Potter has all the charm of a beautifully designed greeting card. It's just that, a beautiful picture with a generic inspirational quote as it's main substance. The film is quite beautifully photographed; you'd actually want to visit England's Lake District after witnessing the perfectly sculptured mountain peaks and the serene lakes. Also, everybody looks beautiful (Zellweger, McGregor, the underused Emily Watson (who'd actually make a better Beatrix, in my opinion)) and there is no hint of ugliness and serious societal trouble within its setting and context. Miss Potter is as fanciful as the children's tales Beatrix created yet unlike the latter, I predict the film will, and cannot, stand the test of time.

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