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December 27, 2006

Defending Miss Potter

Don't call it a chick flick, says star/producer Zellweger

Fact: Beatrix Potter, the beloved children's author whose creations (Peter Rabbit foremost among them) live on in nurseries everywhere, was also an ardent biologist, one of the first to propose a symbiotic link between fungi and algae; as Wikipedia notes with little to no sarcasm, "her pictures of fungi were widely admired." Additionally, Potter was one of the first conservationists in Britain, having bought and saved some 4,000 acres of land by the time of her death in 1943.

All of which makes it hard to understand why a Renée Zellweger biopic has been drawn from such a relatively uneventful life. Without a real dramatic arc and without an obvious demographic, Chris Noonan's Miss Potter (opening Jan. 5 in New York) works very hard not to be overly maudlin or precious; it isn't, but it also doesn't make much of an impression beyond its discretion. It omits the science but keeps the conservancy; hints that her future sister-in-law is a lesbian but never makes much of it, sublimating all potential sexuality in general; brings Potter's illustrations to animated life briefly, but never playfully enough to become a children's film; hints at the underlying grief of Potter's adult years but keeps it light. Potter herself never comes off as much more than an overly precious children's author, a proto-feminist only because that's what it takes to get her work published, and the whole thing leaves little mental residue.

So I asked Noonan in a recent interview: Who's this movie for, anyway?

"I wanted to make it an adult film," he replied. "Whatever audience found it satisfying would be fine. I didn't want to rule out children, but I didn't want to specifically cater to children." Then again, Noonan -- whose last movie was Babe, 11 years ago -- has unorthodox views on what makes a children's film tick. Regarding Babe, he noted, "In many ways, we all have this mission in life to come to terms with the fact that we're going to die, and the fact that a children's film deals with that makes it really unusual."

Indeed. Later, an interview with the cast (Zellweger plays Potter, Ewan McGregor is her publisher/fiancé and Emily Watson his sister) and Noonan shed little more light on Miss Potter's target audience -- or at least why the film is so much blander in practice than theory. One foolhardy soul asked Zellweger if, because the movie contains a gentle romance and no real action, this is part of a continuing agenda on her part to make chick flicks for fans who expect nothing more.

"I don't think this is a chick flick at all," said an offended Zellweger (who also served executive producer duties on this film). "I think it's far more complex than that. It's not meant to be female entertainment. It's an important, important story, and it's a beautiful story. I don't think I've met a guy yet who's seen it who didn't connect to it or cry. It's just real. It's a human story. I think it's the most powerful kind of story to take advantage of the impact this medium can have in terms of moving a person, making you self-aware, making you recognize something different, making you question things, learning something, growing as a person. I don't think it's a chick flick. I think that underestimates it in a terrible way. And I don't think it's true that there's people out there who have expectations of the stuff I do."

It's also not violent or cynical, another reporter noted, rousing McGregor from his taciturn repose into a defense of violence: "It's interesting that you referenced the violence in films because I think there is a place for that," he said. "I think that it's a very violent world, and that's a lot of people in the world who just sit there and don't pay any attention to what we see in the news or read in the newspapers. In a way, it can be a way to shake society, to say, 'Look, this kind of thing's going on.' Maybe if there's a lot of violence in movies it's because there needs to be."

So. Miss Potter: Not a chick flick. Not violent. Anything else it's not? "I think it's very difficult to go to an artist and ask them to define themselves by their place in the market," an exasperated Watson said. "I think it just doesn't make any sense. You do things you love because you have to." Fair enough. Why audiences may or may not love it, on the other hand -- at least as much as its namesake’s fungi photographs -- will continue to be an open question.



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