The most common word used to describe a movie like Miss Potter is “charming,” a word that sometimes raises silent alarm bells with me. The British have another word: “twee.” According to Merriam-Webster, “twee” means “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint,” and, in order to succeed, a film like this has to walk that dangerously thin line between charm and “twee-ness.” Miss Potter walks it so adroitly, it feels almost effortless.
You would think that the life of a children’s book author, even the best-selling one of all time, would be unlikely fodder for a biopic, but like many creative people, Beatrix Potter was more than a little out of step out with her time. Not all such people are automatically interesting, but as portrayed by Renée Zellweger, Potter is a quirky figure who holds our attention and sympathy for the film’s brisk 92 minute running time. She’s an unmarried woman in her thirties in Victorian England, when such a person was an oddity at best. Her mother (Barbara Flynn) believes that a daughter’s only purpose is to marry well and doesn’t think much of Beatrix’s artistic ambitious. Her father (Bill Paterson), a lawyer with few clients, is more indulgent.
As the movie begins, Beatrix has delivered her manuscript for Peter Rabbit to the Warne Brothers publishers. They don’t take this odd young woman seriously and pass the project off to their younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor), who has just joined their firm. He is instantly enthusiastic for the book but it’s soon clear that his primary enthusiasm is for Miss Potter herself.
She is also befriended by Norman’s less-than-conventional family, especially his proto-feminist sister, Millie (Emily Watson), who provide Beatrix with a supportive network she doesn’t find at home.
In the film’s most interesting conceits, Potter interacts with her own artwork as the film blends in some animated sequences of Potter’s famous characters frolicking around as she creates them. The film also dramatizes the incidents in her childhood which inspired some of her stories. The later part of the film deals with her efforts to preserve the rural area known as the Lake District, where her family spent a lot of time when she was growing up.
A film like this succeeds or fails on the strength of its lead performance and Renée Zellweger makes Beatrix Potter into a memorable character, who manages to be equal parts whimsical, eccentric and formidable. Ewan McGregor actually seems to working harder to just hold his half of the screen with Zellweger. Emily Watson is also engagingly conspiratorial as Potter’s supportive friend. As her mother, Barbara Flynn manages not to be a one-dimensional villain but a woman whose love for her daughter is hopelessly constrained by convention.
Given the nature of the film, a woman rebelling against her socially acceptable role, Miss Potter does not seem conspicuously feminist. The story and character of Beatrix Potter are so specific that the film is more about a misunderstood artist than anything else. That she is a woman is almost incidental, as Beatrix Potter would probably be just as out of step with Victorian Britain if she were a man. Of course, in that case we wouldn’t have had Renée Zellweger playing her and that would have been a shame.