Immediately after walking out of Chris Noonan's Miss Potter, I said to my wife, "That's the kind of movie your mother would have liked." Joyce's mother, who lived to age 85, was born in 1919 and grew up in a very different America, one in so many ways closer to the ethos of the 19th century than to that of the 21st. She wasn't a prude, but particularly in her later years, she wanted movies that stayed within a certain muted emotional range. She hated violence, abhorred slapstick, felt uncomfortable with explicit sexuality and didn't want to devote her movie watching to those that grappled with heartbreaking social problems. She didn't demand happy endings, but she preferred them. Miss Potter satisfies her desires on most accounts. It is a forthrightly old-fashioned movie about people who lived much more formal lives. And yet, just because the film appeals to the values of an older generation doesn't mean that it lacks appeal to younger viewers. Despite its creaks, the picture works pretty darn well.
Written by Richard Maltby Jr., and originally envisioned as a musical, Miss Potter is the story of Beatrix Potter, the British author and illustrator of The Tales of Peter Rabbit and a dozen other enduringly popular books for children. Though fictionalized for the purpose of dramatic presentation, the film's narrative is said to remain largely faithful to Potter's life, even to the title-role casting of American Rene Zellweger who bears a physical resemblance to the writer she portrays.
We meet Beatrix when she is 32 in the first years of the 20th century. She still lives at home in London with her parents who have inherited considerable wealth from their merchant-class forebears and aggressively hope to cloak themselves with the purchased titles and assumed airs of British nobility. For some years, mom Helen (Barbara Flynn) and dad Rupert (Bill Paterson) having been trying to marry Beatrix off to whatever future Duke of Inanity or Earl of Incompetence they can gin up, but all the young men they bring home seem to have been bred in too restricted a gene pool, and Beatrix, exercising both considerable good sense and estimable resolve, is ever so not interested.
Alas, given the chaperoned world in which she is raised, Beatrix's refusal to marry has condemned her to a life of solitude. Alone in the second-story room where she grew up, she has invented a world of talking rabbits and bonnet-wearing ducks. With time, she fashions her farmland characters into the heroes and heroines of gentle stories featured in her books for children. She shares this work with her parents. Helen is almost cruelly dismissive of her efforts while Rupert patronizes her with the kind of praise he would offer a prepubescent.
But exhibiting uncommon pluck, Beatrix insists on shopping her drawings and stories to a series of London publishers. Not unlike other enduring work that was initially passed over, The Tales of Peter Rabbit has to endure rejection before finally landing a publishing contract. And even then, Beatrix's publishers fail to spy her book's commercial potential and take on the project only as a trifle to occupy the publishing family's youngest son. Miss Potter is an account of what happens when that endearing youngest son, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), sees the magic with which Beatrix has imbued her Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. Along the way, Miss Potter and Mr. Warne, never daring the intimacy of a first name relationship, fall in love and embark on a chaste but nonetheless affecting pas de deux toward engagement.
The fundamental sweetness of this story is steered from the saccharine by the arrival of tragedy and by the film's clarity that Beatrix's is an uncommon story for a woman of her day and circumstances. Norman's outspoken sister Millie (an always captivating Emily Watson) characterizes the plight of most unmarried women of the age as "confinement to the sewing room and sudden bouts of crying."
Miss Potter fails to explain how so bright and lively a child as Beatrix at age 10 (Lucy Boynton) can have lain fallow into her thirties before blossoming as both an artist and an assertive personality. It also makes too much of Helen and Rupert's mysterious resistance to Norman's courtship. On the other hand, we ultimately learn not quite enough about Beatrix's second life as an environmentalist and agrarian preservationist. The picture makes perhaps far too little of Beatrix's quirky insistence that Peter and Jemima Puddle-Duck are not "creations" but rather "friends." Beatrix's drawings occasionally scurry, gesture and otherwise come to animated life for the author's eyes alone. Thus, one suspects Beatrix Potter's long years of isolation left her dottier than the film ultimately wants to examine.
So, not everything works. But viewers with conventional measures of heart will find this picture surprisingly satisfying. Those of you in that category should go see it. And take your mother.
- 2006 The Weinstein Company
- Publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) looks over Beatrix Potter's (Rene Zellweger) drawings in the beginning of an old-fashioned courtship.