Quiet, moving story soothes soul

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They don’t make movies like “Miss Potter” anymore, and that’s a pity. This gentle and genteel, quietly intelligent film is a heart-warmer, a place of rest amid car chases, special effects and general mayhem.

Director Chris Noonan has progressed from the 1995 “Babe” (the gallant pig) to this film biography of Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and so many other brave and appealing, only marginally anthropomorphic animals. “Miss Potter” conveys the sense of a place, a period, a society, pitting an unconventional (unmarried!) woman against her all-too turn-of-the-century family and social circles. From precocious child, to struggling artist, to the most successful author of children’s books in Britain, Potter’s life is drawn surely, if too kindly.

Noonan must relish impossible challenges: not only did he embark on making a film about an artist with an uneventful life (next: “Emily Dickinson, the Whole Story!”), but he chose (or was forced into engaging) an actress from Texas to potray a quintessentially English woman from the post-Victorian era.

Sure, Renée Zellweger has Bridget Jones under her belt, but that was a fictional, contemporary (and therefore “international”) character. Not so with the very real Potter, born in Kensington, in 1866, spending the second half of her life in the Lake District — something as far from the New World as you can get before reaching the Far East. So, does Zellweger crash and burn? No, but it still seems such an incongruous stretch to overlook hundreds of English actresses who could have made a much better fit, effortlessly. (The same kind of faulty business considerations that engaged Chinese actresses for the top roles in “Geisha” have struck again.)

At first, it takes an effort to accept Zellweger, who — incidentally or otherwise — does more of her annoying face-scrunching than ever before. But then, way into the film, tragedy strikes, and the actress rises to the occasion, redeeming herself, giving the second half of the story a memorable poignancy. Through it all, Hollywood prevails, and Zellweger remains relentlessly pleasant and sympathetic, making one wonder why the real Potter, especially late in life, had a reputation for being grumpy.

The cast around Zellweger is first-class, especially Emily Watson (a natural for the title role, if only she had the “name”). Ewan McGregor makes a fine, if one-note, Norman Warne, the young publisher who helped with Potter’s first books. As Potter’s parents, Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson create memorable characters.

Without a word of dialogue, Matyelok Gibbs takes the acting cake, portraying Potter’s forbidding, disapproving, black-clad escort/minder. Gibbs, who has done dozens of small roles over the years — in the original “Lady Killers” and “Grange Hill,” all the way to being a “woman in rubble” in “Hitler’s S.S.: Portrait of Evil” — should have the title role if a sequel is ever made. She’d be perfect in “Potter, the Late Years.”

Miss Potter ***

Starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen

Written by Richard Maltby Jr.

Directed by Chris Noonan

Rated PG

Running time 1 hour, 32 minutes

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