LITTLE ROCK "Beatrix Potter" has become, over the years, more of a brand than a name, and it has come to stand for something twee, antique and probably cloying. But if you take the time to look back at the woman's children's books, you'll notice that while her mice wear clothes, they're indisputably mice, susceptible to trapping and other real world perils. After all, Peter Rabbit's father ended up in a pie. Potter wrote and painted for children, but she always matter-of-factly allowed for the intrusion of tragedy.
Chris Noonan's Miss Potter, a lightly fictionalized account of the author's life, gives us a person to attach to the trademark. It turns out the creator of Peter Rabbit (and so much more - the movie doesn't even touch on her work as a botanist and natural historian; though to be honest it's hard to see how her criminally overlooked paper on lichens could have been worked into the fabric of the film) was a deeply interesting woman.
Deftly navigating the line between the sublime and the saccharine, Noonan's Miss Potter is a charming and affecting story that gives us a Beatrix portrayed by Renee Zellweger as a slightly brightened-up and toned-down variation of Bridget Jones - a Bridget constrained somewhat (though not entirely) by the conventions of Edwardian society. As the movie opens she is a slightly dotty near-spinster showing her work to the bemused brothers who run Frederick Warne and Sons publishing house. While they're not at all sure there's an audience for such a trifle, they agree to take on Beatrix's "bunny book," mainly so they can give their kid brother Norman (Ewan McGregor), who's just joining the business, a project of his own.
Norman immediately sees potential in Peter Rabbit and his odd-duck creator, but a potential romance is hindered by Beatrix'sparvenu parents, who object to their daughter dating a tradesman. Eventually a compromise is struck, but to reveal any more of the plot at this point would be unfair to those who intend on seeing this slight but satisfying film. Which is just as well because to synopsize this story is to trivialize it - the magic isn't so much in the script but in the performances.
Zellweger's Beatrix is especially well-calibrated; at first we're unsure whether the woman possesses a kind of genius or whether she's simply mad. There is a touch of animation in thefilm, as Beatrix imagines that her beautifully drawn friends genuinely communicate with her. A bit more and we might have found ourselves in (to reference a classic from Helen Reddy's filmography) Pete's Dragon land, but Noonan wisely uses the effect sparingly.
McGregor is highly enjoyable in a restrained role, as is Emily Watson as Norman's less fettered suffragette sister Millie, who recognizes in Beatrix a kindred soul, unlike so many of the other unmarried women of their mutual acquaintance who "sit around gossiping all day and unaccountably bursting into tears."
There is a black edge in much of Potter's work, an acceptance of human ruthlessness and the cruelty of nature, that grew more pronounced in her later stories. There's only the merest hint of that sort of darkness in Miss Potter, a film that doesn't presume to critical biography but is content to engage and delight. It won't please cynics, but its pleasures are real.
MovieStyle, Pages 44 on 04/20/2007