Neverland progenitor brings Christmas cheer

Miss Potter

on December 29, 2006 by Wade Major
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To generations of children and adults alike, the name Beatrix Potter was little more than a name below her far more famous creation, Peter Rabbit. But, like so many authors before and since, Potter's life was one of drama and enchantment well worthy of its own literary treatment. Doubtless, the recent success of Finding Neverland and its illumination of the life of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie played a part in helping further Miss Potter, an unabashed Victorian charmer so old-fashioned and earnest, it could have been written by Miss Beatrix herself.

Renee Zellweger has made a career playing gals with moxy, so it's hardly a stretch to step into the figure of Potter, a talented illustrator born to obsessively aristocratic English parents (Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson) who've just about reached wit's end over her rejection of all prospective suitors. In a strange way, Beatrix is both more traditional and more progressive than her parents — if there's a romance to be had, it'll have to grow from the heart, and it will absolutely have to make room for her career aspirations to become an author.

Beatrix, of course, doesn't really have great prospects for either until, in a stroke of good fortune, a family-owned British publishing concern agrees to take on The Tale of Peter Rabbit, though not for necessarily noble reasons. The brothers who run the company, Harold and Fruing Warne (Anton Lesser and David Bamber), aren't especially impressed by Potter's work, but as a pet project to appease their overeager younger brother Norman (Ewan McGregor, previously Zellweger's costar in Down With Love ), it's just the tonic.

One would have to have lived in a cave to not know that Norman and Beatrix had the last laugh, for The Tale of Peter Rabbit would go on to astronomical success, launching Potter to lifelong wealth and fame and making more than a pretty penny for the Warnes as well. What is not as well known is that Norman and Beatrix also fell deeply in love, bringing personal as well as professional enchantment to Potter's private life.

As with any good story, there are ups and downs and some rather dramatic emotional shifts in Miss Potter that don't always hew to one's wants or expectations. But it's ever a gentle and rewarding ride, safely guided throughout by the sure hand of Babe director Chris Noonan, mercifully back in the saddle after an 11-year filmmaking hiatus and fortunate to have at his disposal a lovely and literate screenplay by veteran Broadway director and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. Not that anyone should expect Miss Potter to do Babe numbers at the box office, but there's no mistaking Noonan's touch — what would be intolerably saccharine or eye-rollingly preposterous in the hands of another director is here executed with such sincerity and confidence that it cuts straight to the heart. Sweet as a Christmas spice cake and warm as Yule log, this is as perfect a holiday family film as anyone has released in years.

Contributions from cast and technicians alike is uniformly excellent — Zellweger is a sheer pleasure, McGregor an intoxicating delight and Emily Watson, as Millie Warne, the brothers' unmarried sister and eventual confidante to Beatrix, is positively magical. Other standout contributions include Andrew Dunn's photography and Nigel Westlake's score (with supplementary contribution from Rachel Portman).

Assorted Scrooges and Grinches will naturally step forward to sneer Noonan's unapologetic whimsy and dismiss it as just so much frothy fluff — but their efforts will be in vain, for it's not the cynics who'll decide Miss Potter 's fate but the dreamers who leave the theater with a tear in their eye, a lump in their throat and the soaring heart of a hopeless romantic. Distributor: MGM
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Bill Paterson, Barbara Flynn, Matyelok Gibbs, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber and Phylidda Law
Director: Chris Noonan
Screenwriter: Richard Maltby Jr.
Producers: Mike Medavoy, David Kirschner and Corey Sienega
Genre: Romantic drama
Rating: PG for brief mild language
Running time: 92 min.
Release date: December 29, 2006 ltd, January 12, 2007 exp

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