The Reeler


January 4, 2007

Miss Potter

Life of children's lit legend gets the white-glove treatment in Noonan's return

It didn't take much to be a rebel woman in turn-of-the-century London; the ladies have it much worse now, when instead of just staying single or dating someone in publishing, they have to shack up with a biker named Darlene or pimp their privates on the Internet even to rank as an imp. The "Miss" in Miss Potter, Chris Noonan's long-awaited follow-up to the beloved Babe, is quite deliberate, if a little quizzical: At 32, Beatrix Potter is very noticeably single and living at home; she doesn’t mind, but for her parents, having a "Miss" in the house is tantamount to failure on everyone's part. What Noonan's film suggests (if indeed it suggests anything) is that Potter was ahead of her time, the picture of self-possession and self-determination -- in short, nobody's Miss. "Miss Potter" is what someone who didn't know her very well would call her, and for a director, that's kind of a problem.

Beatrix Potter was actually 36 when the film opens in 1902, a small but telling liberty writer Richard Maltby Jr. took in his script -- how else to attract Renée Zellweger to the part? (We wouldn't want to be distracted from the film's feminist undertones by an actress playing her actual age.) Potter is living with her parents in their posh London home, a whimsical woman of leisure who talks to her watercolor paintings of bunnies in blazers. Noonan, in what feels like a bit of a goof, sometimes has the drawings talk back, or at least twitch and shimmy on the page. Beatrix faces two problems in life: infuriating her mother (played with great harrumph by Barbara Flynn) by refusing to marry any toothless wonder who gets marched through the door, and her desire to be taken seriously by her barrister father (a mild, doting Bill Paterson). Having found some success painting her wee friends commercially, Miss Beatrix goes to town, hoping to sell a children's book.

With her mouth bunched up like the business end of a balloon, Zellweger's Potter moves through life in a perpetual fluster, and a strictly adorable, saintly fluster it is, as the prim world of Miss Potter adopts the pillowy light and palette of blushes and creams of its subject's irised watercolors. After taking a meeting with the sibling publishers in charge of Frederick Warne & Co., Beatrix's book is fobbed off on the youngest Warne brother, Norman, played by Ewan McGregor (dead charming, as always). Both Beatrix and Norman are new to publishing, and both are determined to make their first book -- The Tale of Peter Rabbit -- a success.

As the book comes together, the two grow cautiously fond of one another, and when, in the wake of their project's great success, Norman proposes marriage, Beatrix's parents go through the roof. He's a "tradesman," you see, though the Potters are parvenus themselves, with money no older than the craggy chaperone who follows Beatrix's every move. Supporting the match is Norman's sister, played with rosy frankness and unfortunate hair by Emily Watson, a spinster herself who cares for her ailing mother. Alas, it was not meant to be, and the farm Beatrix hoped to buy for the two of them becomes hers alone.

Beatrix Potter's illustrations are famously quaint, soothing picture windows on a world whose worries are quaint and soothing at worst. While much of children's literature -- from Grimm fairy tales to Roald Dahl to Lemony Snicket -- revels in darkness, poking into its corners from the safety of the page, Potter's art -- and if we are to believe this film, her life -- was defined by an essential goodness, a triumph in order; everything in its right place, even the talking animals. Noonan's white-glove treatment is suitably proper and hits what seem to be all of the major markers in Potter's life, but it is those markers that insist there's a woman in there -- not a saint -- with an even better story to tell: After she stopped publishing, a self-made millionaire with talent and tragedy in her hip pockets, Potter bought up thousands of acres of England's coveted Lake District and left them to a national conservation trust. Sounds like a Ms. to me.

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