Miss Potter is the story of a woman (Beatrix Potter as played by Renée Zellweger) who stuck to her guns and forged a career at a time when such actions—carried out well past marrying age—raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers. That the film maintains a tone of sickly whimsy throughout tells you all you need to know about the seriousness of the enterprise, and reveals the condescension even genteel pictures bring to what used to be called “women’s issues.”
Even the movie’s inflation of Potter’s work shows you that it doesn’t think it’s much to begin with—that her achievements must be jacked up in order to be taken seriously. Potter’s books did not have epic scope. Her stock in trade was a gentle whimsy that was friendly and comforting, an ideal combination for parents reading to their children that, coupled with Potter’s own richly detailed watercolours, has served generations of kids just fine. But clearly these were not grand enough achievements for director Chris Noonan (Babe) and writer Richard Maltby Jr. They have to ascribe earth-shattering visionary status to her work—anything else would be beneath their lofty standards. And so Potter is turned from a children’s author into what the filmmakers see as a visionary, which, in their maladroit hands, translates into a delusional psychotic. This Potter doesn’t just paint her pictures and tell her stories, she also talks to the finished products as if they were there, and occasionally sees them in genteel acid flashbacks while gazing out the window.
The cutesy condescension with which this is carried out infects most of the rest of the movie: Zellweger’s crinkle-faced bashfulness is marshaled in service of a character who’s never quite given her due even when that’s the stated goal of the scene. The plot begins when Potter finally gets published by a firm that only forsees “a small profit”; it’s a family business that’s using the book to prove their bumbling brother Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) unfit for work. Of course, the book—about a certain Peter Rabbit—takes off, and the two misfits find themselves in love. But the film keeps the upper hand; we don’t experience Potter’s success as identification. It’s distanced, viewed through a glass darkly held by patronizing parents. Thus Potter and Warne aren’t triumphant in the face of adversity; they’re just adorable, like a child that lost its first tooth.
That paternal condescension extends to pretty much everything Potter does. She’s not a 32-year-old spinster clinging to a dream of a life outside of domesticity and subservience; she’s a precocious child in need of props from the “adult” filmmakers. The fatal casting of cute Zellweger is only the most visible example: worse is what happens when Potter falls in with Norman’s sister Millie (Emily Watson, who ought to have the lead). Herself an unmarried thirty-something, Millie offers Potter some sisterly advice on staying unmarried and leading one’s own life. That her single-woman’s discourse dissolves the minute Norman proposes to Potter isn’t the point; what is the point is that it’s handled with a saccharine sweetness that blunts the edge. Again, triumph is postponed for condescension.
This wouldn’t have been an egregious problem if it weren’t for the film’s apparent belief that it’s pushing a feminist agenda. Much, of course, is made of Potter’s parents’ disapproval of her independent ways—specifically her refusal to marry the raft of “suitable” males that her mother (Barbara Flynn) has gone to the trouble of selecting. (Father, of course, is more lenient, not only because of sympathy but because his own artistic ambitions were blighted by his parents’ expectations.) But time and time again, the movie softpedals Potter’s feelings; the filmmakers cut and run from the messy emotions because don’t want to alienate the “quality” market to which this film is designed to pander. One gets the impression that the filmmakers would rather be somewhere else, even as they limply mime the requisite you-go-girl motions in the interest of cashing in. But because the “quality” market is the last outpost of the women’s picture, the stakes are quite a bit higher here than in most January mediocrities. The Weinstein/Miramax subgenre is the only one where you can see women in roles of prominence on a regular basis; unfortunately, like Miss Potter, said depictions tend to be precious and risk-free. (Noonan’s film is oddly reminiscent of Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat, another film that celebrates female agency with maximum smugness.)
There was a time when you could go to see a Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli or George Cukor film and expect a “womens’ picture” that treated emotions with world-historical importance; now we go to this sort of slop that treats emotions and social mores as if they’re nothing. What happened? How did it come to this? I suppose films like Miss Potter may be all we have to go on—films that are content to offer cute condescension and a nod in the direction of (ill-defined) feminist goals. But we’re entitled to something a little more substantial and grand than Noonan’s self-regarding gestures in the direction of those aforementioned issues; in fact, we’re entitled to a throwback that reminds of how engaging a woman’s story can be. Here’s hoping we get one before this genus of films curdles even further.
House contributor Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.