There are two kinds of writers: those whose lives are as exciting as their books and those whose lives are in service to their books. Which kind of writer was Beatrix Potter, author The Tale of Peter the Rabbit and a couple dozen other children's stories that have continued to enchant us over the last hundred years while the world went through all its drastic changes?
Born at the height of Queen Victoria's reign, Potter was by all appearances one of those mildly eccentric Brits who've wiled away their lives doing exactly what they wanted -- in Potter's case, drawing animals, telling stories about them and raising sheep. It's as if she never quite grew up, never quite left home.
But Miss Potter, the delightful new movie from Chris Noonan, the director of Babe, suggests that Potter was more like Peter than like Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. She was always getting into scrapes, somehow managing to wriggle free just in time.
When we first meet her, she's at her work-table, preparing to execute another of her gentle, playful watercolors. Noonan, who did such a beautiful job of capturing the look and feel of a children's storybook in Babe, allows us to luxuriate in the sharpening of a pencil by knife, the swish of color in a jar full of water when a brush is cleaned. And we sense that, for once in a biopic, we'll get a look at both the artist's life and the artist's art.
Renée Zellweger, employing that peculiar strain of spunk that helped sink Cinderella Man, plays Potter, and what do you know, it works here. Her Potter is a woman with one foot in her childhood and the other still trying to find a place to plant itself. A true artist, she'd prefer to be in her garret, drawing and painting. But her garret happens to be located in the attic of her parents' fashionable London townhouse. She's approaching 40, and it's time for her to move on, but where to go?
The M word -- marriage -- hangs over Miss Potter, like a cloud. And maybe it hung over Potter's life. The movie makes little of the fact that drawing bunnies for a living came after Potter's scientific illustrations of various flora and fauna had been turned down by such male bastions as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Potter was trying to steer a course through the pre-feminist era, and she didn’t necessarily need a co-pilot. Then she met Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), the man put in charge of escorting The Tale of Peter the Rabbit and the rest of the "bunny books" into print. The youngest brother in a family-run publishing house, Warne was a little green, to say the least, and McGregor gives him just the right blend of shyness, earnestness and Edwardian hunkitude. His scenes with Zellweger have the exuberant snap of a drawing-room comedy, their love blossoming before our eyes.
Norman wasn’t considered a proper suitor for the upper-class Beatrix, and Potter's snobbish mother (Barbara Flynn) lets her know it, in no uncertain terms. ("They carry dust," she objects when told that Norman, a tradesman, is going to pay a call.) But Beatrix isn't about to let a little class discrepancy get in the way of true love, and she would have married Norman if tragedy hadn't intervened.
Tragedy is always a possibility in Potter's books; that's what lifts them out of the cute-and-cuddly realm. And tragedy has a similar effect on Miss Potter, casting Potter’s fairy-tale life into the darker world of the Brothers Grimm, from which she emerges a stronger, bolder woman. Up until this point, Zellweger has been beaming so much, those chipmunk cheeks packed with walnuts, that you can’t be sure whether she's playing Potter or one of Potter's critters. But there's nothing like a visit from the Grim Reaper to wipe the smile off you face.
While grieving, Potter takes up residence at Hill Top, her newly-bought farm in England's Lake District. And both she and the movie settle into an episode of "All Things Bright and Beautiful" -- not exactly a riveting climax, but Miss Potter does us the honor of following Potter's story, wherever it takes us, rather than squeezing it into some Hollywood mold.
Without much of a dramatic arc to slide along, Noonan gets his effects by carefully controlling the movie's tone. He’s taken the Edwardian era -- bustles on the women, muttonchops on the men -- and bathed it in a rich, buttery light. And he's allowed Nigel Westlake's score to sprinkle fairy dust on everything. (Why couldn't Noonan have directed Finding Neverland?)
Miss Potter may be closer to one of Potter's stories than to her actual life, but who’s to say she didn't slip under Mr. MacGregor's fence herself, confront death and live happily ever after?
Miss Potter did not screen theatrically in Madison, but will be released on DVD on Tuesday, May 8. More information about the film can be found at its IMDB profile and Wikipedia entry, as well as at its official production blog.