The Last King of Scotland

Starring Renee Zelweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson and Richard Mulholland. Directed Chris Noonan.
Running Time: 88 mins.
Rated: Rated G.
This really is a film of sweetness and light - which only an ingrained grump (and it seems there are many) could dislike.

Beatrix Potter first published her tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Jeremy Fisher and other animal friends in 1902. Despite the publishing company's reservations, they proved enormously popular and have taken their place as the most successful children's books. Not only were the stories hers but also the illustrations.

Australian director, Chris Noonan (who directed Babe) has a gentle sensibility which enables him to interpret Richard Maltby Jr's screenplay in a style that resembles the illustrations of Beatrix Potter as well as the old-world gentility of Edwardian England and its manners while indicating that beneath the elegant surfaces there were angers and tensions. This was a period of expected gentility in the upper and middle classes. It was also an era of unbearable snobbery, especially in the nouveau riche families who had forgotten their more down-to-earth origins and the sources of their wealth. Miss Potter does not shirk these realities while still portraying the elegantly restrained and sometimes repressive surfaces.

Beatrix was a vivacious and precocious child in her imagination, her storytelling and her drawings. She grew up hemmed in by society expectations for an unmarried woman, being required to live at home with her parents who were on the lookout for a suitor, any suitor. Her father was affirming of his daughter though generally able to avoid too much responsibility in the house. This was left to his corseted and coiffed gorgon of a wife who was the embodiment of class arrogance.

This comes to a head when Beatrix publishes and mixes with 'trade' (the book company managers and the printers). It gets worse when she wants to marry 'trade' - and even her father lets her down.

'Trade' is in the form of the youngest brother of the Warne publishing company owners, Norman, an earnest fellow whose first book assignment is the potential failure, Beatrix's tales. Beatrix is delighted with the book and also with Norman. And, observing the utmost propriety (Beatrix is accompanied everywhere by an unsmiling chaperone), they fall in love.

If you don't know what happened to them, you need to see the film.

Renee Zellwegger returns to the UK where she made a great hit in the two Bridget Jones's Diary films. Hers is a somewhat mannered performance but she makes the mannerisms those of Beatrix. She is more than a little fey as she talks to the animals (and some restrained animation throughout lets them gesture in return - the came alive in the ballet film of 1971, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, with choreography by Frederick Ashton). The animals have always been her friends, and are more reliable than adults. But, through the performance, we feel we have got to know and understand Betatrex.

Ewan McGregor couldn't be nicer as Norman Warne. He is polite, admires the drawings and the stories, delights in meeting Beatrix and falls in love with her. Emily Watson is charmingly eccentric as Millie Warne who becomes Beatrix's good friend.

Something should be said about Barbara Flynn's unnerving performance as Helen Potter. She really is monstrously insensitive to her daughter on the ordinary human level as well as not appreciating her work. Bill Paterson is good as her father.

Obviously, Miss Potter is not going to set the world on fire. But the film prettily recreates a period from which both Wonderland and Neverland emerged as well as the gentle woods where Peter Rabbit dwelt with his nicely pastel-coloured friends.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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