Published January 18, 2007
“Miss Potter,” a film biography of the famous children’s author, is a charming story that mixes triumph and heartbreak to create a picture of a creative woman who learns to live on her own terms and find her own happiness.
Directed by Chris Noonan, “Miss Potter” stars Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, the writer and painter who created many beloved characters, such as Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and Jemima Puddleduck. The film opens as Beatrix, a shy and sheltered young woman in the early 20th century, is gathering the courage to present her creations to a publisher. The Warne publishing house accepts them, not to make money necessarily, but rather to provide a job for the youngest Warne brother who has little practical experience of the world but wants to be involved in the family business.
Young Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) and Beatrix make a formidable team, however, and soon the books have become more popular than anyone could have imagined. Along the way, the relationship between the two becomes more than merely professional, but the romance between the two is opposed by Beatrix’s image-conscious parents, who believe that a young man in “trade” is not good enough for their daughter.
The film intercuts scenes of Beatrix’s adult life with scenes from her childhood, showing a very proper upbringing in the company of her younger brother. The film makes very clear how she developed her love of drawing and of nature and animals. The scenes of Beatrix’s childhood are idyllic, with winters spent in London, telling stories in a well-appointed nursery, and summers spent in the Lake District, playing in the beautiful countryside.
“Miss Potter” also gets the period details right, from the costumes to the set design to the awkward social interactions forced upon a proper young unmarried lady who cannot go out into the world without her chaperone. As Beatrix becomes closer to Norman and forges a friendship with his sister Millie (Emily Watson), she becomes more outgoing and independent, and her confidence grows by leaps and bounds. No longer content to spend all of her time in her study, Beatrix looks on even a trip to the printing company that manufactures her books as a grand adventure.
Zellweger and McGregor bring a refreshing sense of enthusiasm to their characters. As they get to know each other, you can almost feel their excitement about the success of the books and about their budding romance. As the characters gain freedom and confidence, their exhilaration is palpable. Watson is excellent as the reliable friend who stands by Beatrix throughout the story, and Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson take what could be cartoonish roles as the disapproving parents and make them sympathetic.
All of this makes for a very charming film—at times almost too charming. The main characters come close to being too annoyingly cute, especially in the case of Beatrix, when she addresses her drawings and they come to life in response. Overall, though, Noonan keeps the “syrupiness” in check, especially in the last half of the film, and the characters remain endearing. Helping with this is the very real sense that Beatrix is on an interesting journey. Noonan does an excellent job of showing her artistic abilities at work, always a difficult thing to do. We see her creating the adorable drawings that have become beloved by generations, and we see her growing wonder that the world appreciates and loves these characters as much as she does. As she gains confidence, she is able to move out into the world as a woman of means and defy the expected stereotypes of her position.
Finally, one of the highlights of the film that cannot be overlooked is the scenery. Filmed in part in the Lake District in England where Beatrix Potter lived for much of her life, “Miss Potter” takes full advantage of the sweeping vistas and lush countryside. The film shows why the author felt such an abiding love for nature and why, with the help of local William Heelis (appealingly played by Lloyd Owen), she became an advocate for conservancy of the region. Just watching the countryside unfold in the film is a delight.
“Miss Potter” is an engaging film that tells the story of a woman who uses her creativity and refuses to compromise. Although she values friendship and family, she learns to live independently and create a full life for herself outside of the norms of her society. By the end of the film Beatrix has grown into a mature woman who makes her own decisions and stands up for the things she believes in, and this is a valuable journey to observe.