Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Miss Potter (2006)

 While their mother was searching the house, Moppet and Mittens had got into mischief. ~from The Roly-Poly Pudding by Beatrix Potter
 Beatrix Potter's tales figured prominently in my childhood so I feel rather protective towards them and her. Miss Potter is an enjoyable enough film, oozing self-conscious charm while continually emphasizing how oppressive Victorian society was towards unmarried women, and women in general. The social studies lesson weighs upon the film's potential for enchantment. Not that the role of women in society should have been overlooked or glossed over but the point would have better made had it been made with subtlety. I think that the story would have fared better in the hands of Merchant and Ivory.

As the Austin Chronicle put it:
Miss Potter aims to be "enchanting" and "delightful" and "charming" and all those other adjectives that flow so easily from critics' pens when they're discussing independent movies of a particularly sweet British bent, but it never quite hits the mark. Which is not to say it's a bad movie, but you can see it sweating to be the kind of critical and public darling that movies like Finding Neverland, Sense and Sensibility, and Four Weddings and a Funeral managed to be with half the effort. The film has just the right amount of English wit in its script and pizzicato violins in its score to make its viewers feel both intelligent and cozy, but the story lacks the dramatic tension and sense of purpose to elicit any more of a response than that; plus, it leaves the meaty issue of Potter's questionable sanity maddeningly unexplored. Miss Potter is, in the end, a confection, a trip through the imagination on gossamer wings. Enchanting, perhaps, but a long, long way from meaningful.
 In spite of the emphasis on how well women can get on without men, the fact that Beatrix was a highly respected mycologist and made discoveries in that field is not mentioned in the film. She drew lovely pictures of mushrooms (we had a print of one at home) and I was surprised that one of her main achievements would be omitted.

Beatrix's problems came not so much from her womanhood or spinsterhood but from the fact that her parents were social climbers. Mr. and Mrs. Potter were so eager to fit in with the right people that they tried to achieve total control over their daughter's psyche so that she could be a pawn facilitating their rise. They objected to her betrothal to the publisher Mr. Warne because he was engaged in trade, as if they the Potters were some sort of hereditary nobility rather than one generation removed from trade themselves.

The spectacular cinematography more than made up for the film's shortcomings. The main fault was the casting. An English actress should have played Beatrix, or at least an American who knows how to adapt British mannerisms. Renée Zellweger, whose performances I usually find entertaining, tries too hard to be prim with an odd pursed-lip smirk which only makes her look bilious. An hour or so of that fake smirk was too much for me. Renée would have been better in the supporting role of Millie Warne, and Emily Watson, who played Millie, should have played Beatrix. I am not the only one to think so. According to Style Weekly:
What most brings out the sense of partly missed opportunities is the presence of the accomplished Emily Watson, who plays Norman's unwed sister. Dressed in the most masculine female attire of the period, complete with starched collar, striped tie and a puffy blouse that endows her shoulders with the bulk of a linebacker, she attaches herself to Beatrix with a will and soon is lecturing her on the blessedness of life without men.... [The] fire and coherence of Watson's performance, although a pleasure, tantalizes us with the thought of what she could have made of the title role.
 I do appreciate that fact that an effort was made to celebrate the work of Beatrix Potter, whose books are still enjoyed by children worldwide. I just wish it had been able to capture a little of the genuine magic of the stories, a magic which came from Beatrix herself. The real Beatrix seems rather lost in the film purported to be about her life. Share

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