Skip to main content

I don’t imagine them. They’re quite real. They’re my friends.


Miss Potter
(2006)

Things don’t look good from the off for this Beatrix Potter biopic, which comes hot on the trail of another dramatisation of the life of a children’s author (Finding Neverland). Renée Zellweger has already proved adept at an English accent in Bridget Jones, so at least that isn’t issue. But her take on Potter is extremely mannered, and initially highly off-putting (we’re going to be subject to 90 minutes of this?!). No doubt this is exacerbated by my generally finding Zellwegwer an alarming screen presence (the perma-squint being just one of her quirks). These performance choices may have lent accuracy to her rendition of an author with a highly active interior life and a less accomplished social one, but the actress does little to make herself endearing. Which, surely, is the aim of the filmmakers (in contrast, Emily Watson, playing Beatrix’s spinster friend Millie, captures exactly the likeable-but-eccentric tone that Zellweger needed).

That said, Renée isn’t a deal breaker. She is unable to put the kibosh on enjoyment of this very slight tale, which ambles along agreeably but undramatically before being anchored by a touch of tragedy. Potter’s passion for her art and a world of her own creation is announced by the filmmakers in the most unsubtle of ways (she talks to her creations, Peter Rabbit, Jemimah Puddleduck et al; and they, in animated form, respond). It’s the sort of choice that has the veneer of Hollywood at its most twee (“a truly magical world!”) and prescribes the kind of “whacky sensibility” whereby true creatives experience full-blown hallucinations, such are their limitless imaginations (in Los Angeles I’m sure they do, albeit chemically-induced). The other aspect of this that slightly irks (I didn’t out-and-out hate this element, but I felt like an unnecessary attempt to load the deck) is the animation itself; in making Potter’s images more cartoonish, the beauty and texture of the original watercolours is lost.

None of the conflicts established for Potter to overcome (an overbearing mother who dismisses her passion, her remaining unmarried and being outspoken with her views during a period where women’s roles were straightjacketed) are too daunting, one of the reasons the final film is such a gentle affair. If her mother’s (Barbara Flynn) a bit of a ‘mare, dad (Bill Patterson) is essentially an agreeable sort. Ewan McGregor is cast to his strengths as Norman Warne, the guileless publisher who takes a personal interest in Potter (Watson plays his sister).

But, without the loss that befalls her, the film would float off into immateriality; we are treated to repetitive scenes of a disapproving parent, or of Ewan gazing adoringly at each new piece of artwork Potter shows him. There is only so much story to tell, it seems. And, when the dramatic meat arrives, attempts to reflect tragedy through her paintings are particularly unsubtle. Much better are the scenes in her adopted Lake District home(s) as she rediscovers her affinity for the area (a childhood holiday home) and takes an interest in the preservation of the way of life there.

As with any fictionalised telling of the life of a historical figure, there is a fair amount of omission and addition; it would have been nice to have some insight into her illustrations of the natural world, and the accompanying interest shown by the scientific establishment. And her brother Bertram is only seen during childhood flashbacks, although referred to by the adult Beatrix. What befell him?

This was director Chris Noonan’s first film in 11 years (following Babe), and it looks as if the same time may pass before we see anything further. There’s a generous spirit to both of these confections, but Miss Potter lacks Babe’s innocent charm. Which, ironically, makes it a far better companion to the author’s books than the film about her life.

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .