Unlike the abominable movie Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which also revolves around an acclaimed and misunderstood artist, Miss Potter provides a glimpse of an eccentric woman with a perfect balance of whimsy and heart-tugging. Where the former had pretension and an air of holier-than-thou freaky smugness, the latter celebrates the world of creativity and the fun that comes with being an imaginative outcast. In short, it's like a slimmer version of Finding Neverland with less heft and more joy.
Miss Potter is based on the true story of Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger), a writer/painter who lives in London during the early 1900s with a family ranking high on the financial totem pole. Since she despises her snippy, buttoned-up society, she uses her watercolor illustrations and stories as a helpful escape device, creating a series of popular children books about Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and the rest of her "friends."
While some might call her batty—she speaks to these animations as though they are real, and the movie shows them come to life through her eyes—others might acknowledge that the Victorian Era isn't exactly the cuddliest of times, and fun should be grabbed wherever it pops up. Nonetheless, her disapproving mother (Barbara Flynn) ridicules her art and tries to pawn her off on rich "acceptable" gentleman, but she finds herself more drawn to the "unacceptable" Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), a kindred spirit who loves her work and helps publish her books.
Period pieces tend to have a claustrophobic stuffiness that modern audiences can't truly connect with, but Miss Potter rises above this problem by being the fuzzy teddy bear of the genre. It's sweet, adorable and just plain delightful—aided in big part by the playful chemistry between Zellweger and McGregor, running around and smiling like two kids who discovered an extra stash of cookies in the cabinet.
The great thing about Miss Potter is that it's a PG movie that both kids and adults can enjoy. Director Chris Noonan, best known for his work on Babe, has a knack for recreating youthful bliss and throwing in just the right amount of sentiment. The script by newcomer Richard Maltby Jr. offers a few unexpected turns that may warrant a dab of the eye, but even when sad things occur, there is an underlying feeling of hope. It helps that Emily Watson is there to provide comic relief as Miss Potter's confidante Millie, a 30-something woman who wears ties and sees marriage as a rusty pole she'd rather not touch.
As Bridget Jones's Diary proved, Zellweger is never better than when she is speaking in British tongues—which is ironic considering most American actresses sound like Madonna when they try to tackle a foreign accent. She brings a natural loveable quality to the role, sort of like Nurse Betty with frumpier clothes and better medication. The story is complemented by gorgeous shots of the English countryside, draped with cottages, rolling hills and glistening lakes, and every shot is more beautiful than the last. Miss Potter is a movie that may not change your life, but it sure will put a smile on your face.