Long before bespectacled boy wizard Harry emerged on the scene, the most famous Potter in the literary was Beatrix, author of some 23 children’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. I loved Beatrix Potter’s books when I was a child (I think I preferred the wonderful illustrations to the stories themselves), but never really gave much thought to the author’s life and how she got the books published. So when I heard about the 2006 film Miss Potter, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to gain some additional insight into Potter’s life and times.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The film opens in London of the early 1900s, where Beatrix Potter (played by Renée Zellweger) is an unmarried woman in her thirties, living at home with her mother and father. We immediately get the sense that there’s something unusual about Beatrix: she talks to her drawings and calls her creations her friends. Indeed, they are the only friends Beatrix has.
Beatrix is also an oddity in that she refuses to accept the Victorian notion that the only things women should ever aspire to do are get married, have children, and run a household. Instead, Beatrix wants to be a writer, so she takes her portfolio to the Warne publishing house where she presents The Tale of Peter Rabbit to brothers Harold (Anton Lesser) and Fruing (David Bamber). Much to Beatrix’s surprise, the brothers agree to publish the book, and to give Beatrix full control over how the finished product will look.
Soon after Beatrix’s initial visit to the Warnes, she receives a follow-up visit from a third brother, this one named Norman (Ewan McGregor). It turns out that Norman had been bothering Harold and Fruing about joining the firm and contributing to the family business, but since Norman had no experience, his elder brothers were reluctant to take him on. Then they figured that Beatrix’s “bunny book” would be a great project to pass off to Norman: it would get him off their backs and if he screwed up, it wouldn’t be a big loss.
Norman tells Beatrix that he understands what his brothers are doing, but he’s intent on showing them that they’re wrong about him. As a result, he takes Beatrix’s book very seriously and puts a lot of thought into the printing, binding, and marketing of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix works closely with Norman throughout the process, and they’re both very proud of the way the book turns out. Moreover, they’re ecstatic when The Tale of Peter Rabbit becomes an instant hit, leading them to immediately start planning for a follow-up.
The rest of the film then deals with various aspects of Beatrix’s life after her initial success with Peter Rabbit, including her budding romantic relationship with Norman; her close friendship with Norman’s sister Millie (Emily Watson); an unexpected tragedy; and Beatrix’s move to the countryside where she purchased several working farms and fought to preserve the land.
My Reaction: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this movie! It was so easy to get involved in the story and it was just so different from everything else that I’ve been watching lately that I couldn’t help but like it. That’s not to say it was without its problems, but still — all things considered, it was pretty good.
I never realized that Beatrix Potter was such a strong-willed woman or that she had to overcome so much resistance from her mother regarding both her books and her unwillingness to marry any of the men that her mother selected for her. I also had no idea that Beatrix Potter was so involved in land preservation back then or that her legacy in that cause lives on to this day.
As far as the cast went, I thought Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson gave excellent performances here. Watson in particular did a great job in her limited role as Millie, and I have to concur with other reviewers who wondered if she would have been the better choice as Beatrix. While Zellweger was okay, someone wrote that her performance was “strained” — and that’s precisely the right word here. Just look at her facial expression in 90 percent of the scenes. Strained is the only way to describe it.
Overall, I felt that Miss Potter was a pleasant departure from the typical Hollywood fare being trotted out in front of audiences today. I give it 4 stars out of 5, and with a running time of just 92 minutes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t at least give this film a try!