Chris Noonan's Miss Potter continues a rather long line of films that attempt to diagnose the creative process of a writer and the critical world that surrounds the writer's inherent social (emotional) ineptitude. There are moments where Miss Potter seems to be on the right track in feeling out the emotional trajectory of its main character, but it often chooses the route of greater cuteness over the challenges of trying to study the life of a writer.
Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellweger) came from a well-off family and was well past her marriage date when three brothers agreed to publish her book, expecting nothing more than a minor profit. In case the name doesn't ring a bell, Miss Potter was the brains behind the beloved Peter Rabbit and several other indelible creatures of delightful fantasy. When the elder statesmen of the publishing firm deem the project unworthy of their time, they send their young brother (Ewan McGregor), to handle the book and its flighty author. As you may guess, the two fall head-over-heels, much to the chagrin of Beatrix's parents (Bill Patterson and Barbara Flynn) and to the glee of his sister (Emily Watson, the film's most evident charm factory).
Noonan, best known for the now classic Babe, treats his subject with the same well-dressed adorability that Potter gave her creatures, most notably Peter. A more easygoing version of Marc Forster's Finding Neverland, Miss Potter spends more time striving to deal with the relationship status of its heroine than delving into the quixotic charm of her writing process. The better parts of the film are the flourishes of animated hallucinogenics that Noonan puts in as a reminder of where these creations came from: Beatrix's parlor of emotional eccentricities.
The problem is that, when push comes to shove, we've seen Potter's story before, and Miss Potter is severely lacking in trying to differentiate its source material from any other classically-tinted story of love and writing. Acting-wise, there couldn't be a sweeter bunch of actors to add to the candy-coated shell the film inhabits. But the film invariably goes for impenetrable cuteness, even when a rather obvious tragedy occurs. In fact, all the drama that arises seems to be treated with fumbling, patronizing dullness to give more ample weight to what is a rather wanting character study.
Rereading the Peter Rabbit books, you have to marvel at the simplicity and class that the books had in telling a story with a solid moral. What Miss Potter doesn't have is the creative veil that Potter herself gave these wonderful stories. The film could have been so detailed and surreal, yet it relies on whimsy like the animated whirl of Beatrix's parents stepping into a cartoon pumpkin led by four monstrous rabbits. It is missing that childlike love for nature and animals that Beatrix must have had, and in turn, forgets what it's like to have an imagination.
Not Harry's mom.
The DVD case for The Republic of Love engages in a little harmless misinformation. The film is not actually based on a Pulitzer Price-winning novel. It's based on a book written by someone (Carol Shields), who wrote another book (The Stone Diaries), which did win a Pulitzer.
That's some comfort, too, because I can't fathom how a middle-aged romantic tragicomedy like this could possibly win a major award.
At its core is a story of a radio talk show host Tom (Bruce Greenwood) and "mermaid researcher" girlfriend Faye (Emilia Fox). Tom has a string of divorces behind him, the result of being too anxious to fall in love with every girl he meets. Faye is gunshy -- it seems that all of Tom's ex-wives are friends of hers. (And, strangely, she's never met him?)
None of this is played for laughs, really. We're supposed to feel bad for Tom and pine for he and Faye to find something lasting amidst an environment of bleak winter, dysfunctional families, and dying geriatrics. Cold and detached, it's hard to get behind either of these characters, who not only don't seem very right for each other, they don't seem very right for anyone. Case in point: When Tom is jogging with a friend, the guy (right next to him) collapses and keels over dead. Tom doesn't notice: He's distracted by a billboard with his face on it, concerned with the size of his nostrils. As for Faye: A mermaid researcher? I can't put my finger on it, but something just doesn't gel there.
Director Deepa Mehta does nothing to make this palatable. In fact, she goes out of her way to distance us from the story and the characters, most notably through washing the entire movie into total gray, giving it just a hint of color (in the end, the movie brightens up in a particularly awful scene that has animated flowers growing over the frame). Wintry symbolism has never felt so forced -- and in a film that ought to have been played as a romantic comedy, it's never been more out of place, either.
This film is one of Film Movement's simultaneous theatrical/DVD releases -- but I can't find any theater that's showing it. Film Movement is also the sole distributor of its DVDs -- releasing one a month -- so you can't usually get them at Amazon. This one's the exception.
Date of birth
14th April, 1966