Renée Zellweger suffers for her art. She muscled up for Chicago, puffed up for Bridget Jones, and here, as childhood’s inescapable authoress Beatrix Potter, Zellweger nervily appears to go onscreen sans makeup, cheeks scrubbed red like a shiny plum. Miss Zellweger is perfectly cast in a role that demands all of her specialties: squinching her lips, playing a spinster, and stamping her feet in vintage clothing. Bravura. If her handlers would ease up on her adorability clause, I’d love to see her Lizzie Borden.
But back to Miss Potter, who, at 32, is still living in her parents’ tastefully-appointed home painting watercolors of ducks and bunnies. What excites her as an artist is that once the first words of a story are inked, the imagination can take the ending wherever it wants. Which is a far cry from 1902 British society, where the only suitable denouement for women is a suitable marriage. (It’s also a ways off from Potter’s own yarns, where her anthropomorphic animals always get their comeuppance.)
Beatrix—if manners permit me to address her informally—is a passive rebel, a girl who refuses to grow up. She claims to talk to her paintings (who director Chris Noonan occasionally allows to spring to life), which endears her to no one, including her creaky chaperone Miss Wiggin (Matyelok Gibbs), who has spent so many decades protecting her mistress’ hand-holding chastity that she’s now nearly gone bald. Beatrix expresses herself, kinda sorta, through the tales of her pets, these hedgehogs, kittens and squirrels who are forever bumping up against society’s rulebook. When Beatrix finally pressures two publishers into printing up the first editions of Peter Rabbit, they agree only to keep her and their brother Norman (Ewan McGregor) occupied with the worthless project. Which ends up making Beatrix millions.
‘Course, as she’s already wealthy, the money is secondary to her fledgling romance with boyish, sensitive Norman. Until her parents threaten to cut her off for marrying a tradesman—a bit of snobbery people pretend no longer exists (remember when Julia Roberts married a cameraman?). “We must make our own way,” our heroine asserts pluckily. Only as the film is as stubbornly intent on marrying her off as her parents, what follows is more conformist than maverick. (Hey! It’s like the film equivalent of John McCain!)
This is the third biopic of the past year that takes an independent female icon and reduces her to a romance paperback. Like Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus and The Notorious Bettie Page, the script (penned by Richard Maltby Jr.) ditches her art—a.k.a., the reason she remains famous—to instead have Beatrix’s world framed by kisses and weddings. This ain’t a problem for Pollock, Patton, Gandhi or Ray. Was her supposed passion for painting just her way of channeling her unkissed restlessness into a hobby? Even the three frames of closing epilogues on her life rank her books last after listing her devotions to her man and the environment.
The latter of which may actually be her most important treasure, as upon her death, Beatrix donated 4,000 acres of England’s Lake District to what is now a resplendent national park. When Noonan’s camera sweeps across the verdant, misty fields and crisp lakes, it’s clear where Beatrix’s fascination with critters and meadows blossomed. And that may be all Noonan sets to accomplish with this simplistic, pretty little trifle that leaves its leading lady as colorful as a printed picture of a goose in a petticoat—but also just as flat as one.