Suitable for children and for women who really know their potpourri, "Miss Potter" offers a working definition of the word "twee." It will be, and should be, embraced by audiences desperate for tasteful entertainment that lacks the brutalities of modern moviegoing. In all honesty, though, the thing is wet enough to make one long for some good old-fashioned sex and violence.
Beatrix Potter, for the uninitiated, was the author and illustrator of a series of children's books in Edwardian England: 23 small tales of bunnies and hedgehogs and bad mice named Hunca Munca that are graced with droll watercolors. The first was "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," published in 1902; it remains the best known. Potter died in 1943 but the books have never been out of print, and they preserve a vanished, possibly imaginary England that can be immensely comforting if your tastes run to the homespun.
The immediate problem with making a movie based on Potter's life is that it doesn't seem to have been very interesting. Written by Richard Maltby Jr. and directed by Chris "Babe" Noonan, "Miss Potter" huffs and puffs but fails to work up much dramatic steam. Perhaps that would be vulgar.
Potter's books were published by Frederick Warne & Co. in the face of opposition from her wealthy family and after countless other firms had turned her down, and the movie does see the author as a sort of jolly feminist precursor -- a sister suffragette who talked to squirrels.
So there's that, but one immediately comes up against the fact that Potter is played by Renee Zellweger at her most alarmingly fey. The actress has done the accent before, in the "Bridget Jones" movies, but here she squinches her features into the middle of her face and talks like an enthusiastic, slightly backward British schoolgirl. It is one of the worst performances by a professional actress in recent memory or, in its galloping eccentricity, entirely appropriate.
The movie's other narrative thread is Potter's slow-growing romance with Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), the youngest brother in the publishing company and himself a gentle misfit. The best scenes in "Miss Potter" focus on the hesitant not-quite-courtship of these two -- they're children suddenly alive with ardor -- but the movie's avoidance of anything even slightly physical comes to seem naïve instead of novel. "Miss Potter" says that if you find the aggressive attraction of Norman's boyish unmarried sister Millie (Emily Watson) to Beatrix a trifle odd, well, shame on you. Yet the issue hangs there like Mrs. Tiggy-winkle's dirty laundry.
Toward the end, a case is made for Potter as an early land preservationist, buying failed farms to protect her beloved Lake District. Mostly, though, "Miss Potter" turns the solemn comedy of her books and illustrations into mere whimsy, animating Jemima Puddle-duck into cartoon life whenever Beatrix talks to her. Intentionally or not, the movie positions Potter as the spiritual founder of that strain of souvenir-shoppe cuteness -- collectible teddy bears in teacups and so forth -- that makes some people break out their pocketbooks and others break out in hives.
The books, quaint, sometimes mysterious and rarely only cute, hint otherwise. "Miss Potter" probably wouldn't have been made without the success of "Finding Neverland," another story of an Edwardian fantasist out of joint with his times. Where Johnny Depp's J.M. Barrie had deep wellsprings of sadness, though, Zellweger's Beatrix has pluck. And pluck is good for only so long before a moviegoer starts screaming inside.