Miss Potter (United Kingdom/United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Beatrix Potter may not be as well-known a name today as Harry Potter, but what child doesn't show recognition at the mention of "Peter Rabbit?" Miss Potter's most lasting contribution to the pantheon of characters from children's literature, Peter Rabbit was not her only creation, but he is her best known. Chris Noonan's Miss Potter is a pleasant, well crafted bio-pic of Peter's creator. As might be expected, the film takes some liberties with the life of its main character, but the essential facts are accurate and, after having watched the movie, most viewers will appreciate Beatrix Potter as more than simply a writer and illustrator.

The bulk of Miss Potter takes place in the early 1900s, with occasional flashbacks to the 1870s, when Beatrix (Lucy Boynton) was developing her fertile imagination as a girl in Kensington (London). Unmarried and headstrong, the 36-year old Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) publishes her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is 1902. Her editor, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), collaborates with her on this and subsequent works, and the pair fall in love. During this time, Beatrix becomes close friends with Norman's sister, Millie (Emily Watson). When Norman asks Beatrix to marry him, trouble arises. Beatrix is ecstatic about the proposal but her parents are horrified. There is no way a daughter of theirs is going to marry - gasp! - a tradesman.

Miss Potter is constructed almost as a Jane Austen novel (albeit in a more modern setting). Many of the familiar themes and ideals are present. The heroine is a strong-willed woman who rebels against the conventions of the day. She falls in love in an unlikely manner. Her parents are more interested in the status that may be gained from a marriage than in their daughter's happiness, although the father is more respectful of his daughter's wishes than the mother. Fans of Austen's novels will find familiar threads running throughout Noonan and screenwriter Richard Maltby's interpretation of Miss Potter's life.

Renée Zellweger, one of two American actresses who can affect a flawless British accent (the other is Gwyneth Paltrow), plays Beatrix as a headstrong, odd woman who lives more in a world of fantasy than reality. Her "friends" are the animals she draws and writes about. Noonan expresses Beatrix's attachment to her creations by occasionally animating them. We see them through her eyes - not merely static creatures, but living things that change expressions and move around on the paper. Beatrix has led a sheltered life - until meeting Millie, she has no friends and her parents are interested in maintaining the status quo with Beatrix living to become an old maid in their house.

The love story is beautifully constructed. There's some sentimentality here, but Noonan is careful not to take it too far and to avoid overplaying the audience's emotional chords. This isn't a Hollywood romance between two young, pretty people. As Beatrix, Zellweger has used makeup to appear plain. Ewan McGregor retains an element of his boyish charm, but he's also hesitant and clumsy around Beatrix - not exactly a knight in shining armor. Yet the flaws of the characters make their interaction endearing. In a supporting role, Emily Watson is a firecracker and has some of the best lines.

Noonan, whose previous film, Babe, reached screens 11 years ago, has produced Miss Potter with an eye toward the family audience, although it's unclear whether children will be interested in anything beyond the few brief scenes featuring low-key animation. Some will liken this to Finding Neverland, although the similarities don't stretch beyond the essential premise of seeking a level of understanding about the author of children's books. After all, it would be difficult to find two more dissimilar people than J.M. Barrie and Beatrix Potter.

The strength of Miss Potter is in many ways the simplicity of its intentions. This is an engaging story, well told. There are no deeply hidden messages or thinly disguised agendas. The cinematography is stunning (especially the landscapes of the Lake Country), the acting is solid, and Noonan's direction adds an element of whimsy to the tale. With its lack of pretensions, Miss Potter is that rare breed of cinematic animal: a movie whose entire goal is to entertain and perhaps apply a gentle touch to the heart.

Miss Potter (United Kingdom/United States, 2006)

Director: Chris Noonan
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Lucy Boynton
Screenplay: Richard E. Maltby Jr
Cinematography: Chris Seager
Music: Nigel Westlake
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-29
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1