Children’s book author Beatrix Potter left the world a little brighter and happier with her enduring stories of Peter Rabbit. Delightfully illustrated in early renditions, Potter quickly became sought after, but few people knew much about the real woman behind those stories.
Some of Potter’s complexities unfold in the new film, “Miss Potter.” Renee Zellweger takes on the role of Potter and creates a character as intriguing as her whimsical stories of a rabbit family. The story takes place in 19th-century London. Potter, still single at 32, is starting to worry her parents (Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn) that she’ll never find a suitable mate and settle down. But she’s too absorbed in creating illustrations of characters - Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggly Winkle, Jemima Puddle-duck, Benjamin Bunny and others - for her greeting cards that she says just pop in her head with their stories.
Beatrix is so zoned in on her work as an artist that she wants to create a book, and sets about visiting one publishing house after another with no luck. Grown men have no idea just how popular Beatrix’s little drawings will be someday.
When she visits the Warne Brothers, however, Beatrix gets a different response. They’ve been looking for a project for the younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor), and decide publishing Beatrix’s book will keep him quite busy.
They’re right. Norman must spend so much time with Beatrix, the two are soon bosom buddies. While they giggle over her designs and banter back and forth about publishing terms, they spend a lot of time with each other’s families and get to know each other very well. In fact, they’re soon obviously in love even if they don’t admit it to themselves right away.
Beatrix also becomes very good friends with Norman’s sister, Millie (Emily Watson), a confirmed bachelorette who believes Beatrix wants to remain unmarried as well. At one point, Norman finally pops the question, which surprises Emily but angers Beatrix’s parents, who look down on Norman. After all, he’s not of their daughter’s social class.
None of that matters to Beatrix, who leaves her parents’ home but finds the marriage decision taken out of her hands. She moves to the country and buys a home by a lake where she meets some distinguished friends. She even takes on greedy land buyers.
Renee Zellweger (“Cold Mountain”) may not be British, but she fills Miss Potter’s shoes just fine. With her rosy cheeks and her early pro-feminist attitude, Beatrix is a woman to be reckoned with and enjoy as she strives to fulfill her dreams.
“When I first read the script of Miss Potter, I knew exactly who she Beatrix Potter was,” Zellweger said. “I understood why her growing up formed the woman she became. I understood why she became more and more reserved with the restrictions put on her.”
The pleasant surprise in the film is Ewan McGregor as Norman. Whenever Norman is in the same room with Beatrix, McGregor’s face lights up like a kid on his first carnival ride. The two can hardly keep their eyes off of each other, but as protocol dictates in those days, they mind their manners even while lighting up the room with their passion.
This wasn’t the first time that McGregor and Zellweger worked together. They paired up in “Down With Love,” a 1960s pop culture comedy where the costumes were as big as the actors. Their sense of humor, coupled with their abilities to remove any ego from their work and let their true characters shine through, keeps “Miss Potter” fresh and appealing from beginning to end.
Emily Watson turns in a wonderful performance as Millie, a most unconventional single woman of the 19th century. Some critics felt Watson would have been better in the Potter role, but I believe the casting worked find.
Richard Maltby Jr. wrote the screenplay for “Miss Potter” and Chris Noonan directs, more than 10 years after directing “Babe.” His direction is superb, topped off with exceptional costumes and locations.
“Miss Potter” is amusing, entertaining and delightful all the while teaching us something about a real woman few people know much about, even though they’ve read her stories again and again.