Renee Zellweger and English literature; the two should go about as well together as mashed potatoes covered in maple syrup. But ever since the infamously high-pitched Texan did justice to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, a lot of people, including yours truly, were willing to go on faith that a Texan could pass for someone British outside the context of boorish soccer hooliganism. Which is why, I didn’t have a problem when it was announced that Zellweger was going to play famed British children’s author Beatrix Potter in the new bio-pic Miss Potter.
Potter lived in turn of the century London with her well-off parents. Being 32 years old and having never married, she’s considered a spinster and spends her days working on books about anthropomorphized animals like Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and Jemima Puddle-Duck. A publishing house owned by the Warne Brothers decide to release Potter’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, believing that it won’t be a smash success, but it will be a good project for their younger brother Norman (Ewan McGregor) to get his feet wet on as he learns the family business. Norman really takes to the project and more importantly Beatrix takes to him. Norman proposes and Beatrix is willing, but her upper class mother disproves of “trade’s people.” The film covers Potter’s life as her efforts grow to include the preservation of land in Sawrey in Britain’s Lake District.
I greatly admire director Chris Noonan’s focus with this movie. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details of a bio-pic and try to make every detail of a person’s life significant to the sum. Noonan keeps it tight within the core group of five characters including the Potters, Norman Warne and his older sister Millie (Emily Watson). I’ve been told that Zellweger and McGregor were really good together in Down With Love, which I can believe, having seen the two of them together in Miss Potter. They have great chemistry (appropriate for the times) and they display an easy rapport in their working relationship. Offering great support is Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson as Beatrix’s parents, especially in a scene at the Potters’ Christmas party where Beatrix entertains with her latest story, much to her mother’s dismay. Her father leans in and says tersely, “Our daughter is famous Helen; you’re the only one that doesn’t know it.”
The movie I think does have a few problems, one of which in my opinion is the scenes involving Beatrix imagining her paintings coming to life. Something about this didn’t sit right with me, actually a couple of things; one is that I think it was wholly unnecessary and two, it sort of was, to me, giving spinsterhood a negative almost irrational condemnation. The way these imaginings are portrayed really comes across more like a fit of madness to me rather than an implied sense of whimsy, and I couldn’t help but notice how these “bits of silliness” disappeared after Norman declared his romantic intentions. In the larger context, there’s really no new ground covered in the theme of class distinctions and the post-Victorian notion of marrying someone appropriate. I know the story is based on real life, and that’s a hindrance, but I’ve seen this movie a dozen times where the girl wants to marry a boy of lower class to the dismay of a disproving parent (usually the mother.)
I think the work of the actors though, and the well-meaning and well told story, outweigh any narrative or thematic snafus. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed the works of Potter either as a child, or rediscovered as an adult in a Children’s Lit class, will love the story of how a talented writer broke the mould and the odds to create stories so beloved even a hundred years after they were first published. Combined with a timely message about conserving green space in the third act, Miss Potter has a lot to offer.