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Friday, Sept. 14, 2007
Life can be a bunny old thing
By KAORI SHOJI
During her youth she was mostly known as "Miss Potter," an unmarried spinster from a wealthy London family who had a knack for drawing rabbits and other small animals with astonishing lifelike precision. Success came to her in middle age, and Miss Beatrix Potter went on to become one of the world's best-loved authors of children's books. Her creations: Peter Rabbit, Miss Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mr. Jeremy Fox et al, brought her fame and wealth but she always shied away from the brassy trappings of stardom.
She used her royalties to purchase and preserve the English countryside that she loved so much, and after her death the land was given over to the Conservation Society. How would Miss Potter have reacted to a Hollywood bio-pic about her personal life, titled (so aptly) "Miss Potter?" My guess is that she would have raised at least an eyebrow and some ladylike objections. Director Chris Noonan (of "Babe" fame) treats Beatrix Potter and her art as adorably accessible cinematic munchies. Not that this is a bad thing. Just as her animal creations have captivated audiences around the globe for more than a century, it is perhaps fitting that her life story should be as widely seen and appreciated as possible.
Noonan is very alert to the sense of decorum that defined Miss Potter's existence and that of London society of the era (around 1900), and his ear for stuffy drawing-room dialogue is faultless. On the other hand, his Miss Potter (played by a quietly feisty, rosy-cheeked Renee Zellweger) comes off as an independent, strong-willed individual, a dedicated professional who refused to live life as dictated by the strict Victorian standards of her mother, Mrs. Potter (Barbara Flynn). However, she didn't go so far as to rebel completely and embarrass her family; in this way and others, Miss Potter was admirable and inspiring — a formidable woman with a mind of her own, but with a modest and tenable ego.
All of that surfaces in "Miss Potter," showing Beatrix Potter as the subtly intriguing person that she was, and yet it's clear — even from this film that tends to skimp over that aspect — that her work was the foremost important dimension. While the story dwells quite effectively on the relationship with her parents, the routines of family life and the tragedy that ended her engagement to her editor, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), it falls short of explaining Miss Potter's very particular gift, how she honed her ideas, her creative process.
Beatrix, as a little girl (Lucy Boynton), goes for long excursions in the countryside with her brother Bertram (Oliver Jenkins), and returns with sketches of bunnies and other animals encountered on the way, but we never know how she acquired that unflinching eye and deep love for observing flora and fauna. Later, we see her with her blouse sleeves rolled up, poring over her sketches in a huge atelier fashioned inside the family's London house and occasionally admonishing her animal creations that "You must behave!" That's about it.
Her father (Bill Paterson) was delighted by his daughter's talents and gave encouragement without being too serious about it. Her mother was a marriage-obsessed English matron who exhorted Beatrix to grow up fast, tie the knot with an appropriate gentleman and give large, stately parties. To Noonan's credit, Beatrix's mum isn't portrayed as an abusive monster, which would have been too easy; rather, she brims over with a kind of narrow-minded, misguided love for her daughter. Maybe Beatrix wasn't appreciated enough by her family, but she certainly wasn't stinted in any way.
This is precisely the main difficulty about bringing Potter's life to the screen: On a personal level, there was very little that spoke of drama, emotion, action. At 34, she couldn't go anywhere without being chaperoned by the elderly and silent Miss Wiggins (Matyelock Gibbs), hired solely to keep unsuitable males away.
Beatrix's world consisted of her art, the family and the family house. Her editor Norman Warne was a brief respite from this tight-knit and excessively orderly microcosm, but in the film they barely manage to exchange one kiss and call each other by their first names (it had always been "Mr. Warne" and "Miss Potter" when addressing one another) before influenza claims Norman's life. Beatrix deals with her loss by working furiously. She picks up where she left off, a woman who had always professed that any friends she needed lived within the pages of her books, shaking their little cotton tails. A life of drama and love may have slipped through her fingers but she was certainly blessed with tranquillity and equilibrium. Translating this to the screen must have required a lot of fine tuning: a job suited more, perhaps, to the temperament of someone like Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu.