Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddleduck – everyone knows the anthropomorphised animal heroes of Beatrix Potter’s world. Whether anyone wants to watch a biopic about the woman whose illustrations and stories covered their kiddie cups and saucers is a different question, though. Factor in the knowledge that Miss Potter is directed by the bloke who made a pig talk in Babe, features Zellweger really, really acting (like, until she almost bursts) and no one will blame you if you’ve already started reading the next page.
With its U certificate and occasional dash of animation as Beatrix’s illustrations come to loving life, Miss Potter could be mistaken for a children’s picture. But it’s most definitely not. Instead, it’s one of those terribly twee Edwardian costume dramas; the kind where families gather together to sing carols in the music room and everyone talks like they’ve just stepped out of an Oscar Wilde production (“I wish you wouldn’t invite tradespeople into the house. They carry dust”).
Director Chris Noonan aims for middlebrow, turning Beatrix into a feminist icon, a woman who refuses to be constrained by the straitjacket of social conventions and strikes her own path (nothing new to see here, move along now...). At least that gives Zellweger something to sink her thesping teeth into. She plays Beatrix as a plummy-voiced, rosy-cheeked eccentric who, like Doctor Dolittle, talks to the animals, even the illustrated ones. It’s the kind of performance that aims for endearing but occasionally flirts with excruciating.
Thank heavens for McGregor, then, who turns up early on as Potter’s bumbling publisher, sporting a ’tache borrowed from Tom Selleck and with a playful glint in his eye. It’s the first time the two stars have been on-screen with each other since 2003’s Down With Love and it’s their chemistry that holds the film together, helping to inject a much-needed depth of feeling as hope turns to tragedy. It proves surprisingly touching, even if it is in a cutesy, flopsy-wopsy bunny-wunny sort of way.