The scraping of a pencil on paper is the first sound you hear in Miss Potter. As a harbinger of what’s to come in this singularly unadventurous biopic, the sound is just about adequate. The artist at its center — Beatrix Potter (played by Renée Zellweger at her squinchy-faciest) — is both alone and utterly focused, a young woman of early 20th-century London, vaguely resentful that she’s shut away in her bedroom with only the cute little creatures she draws as her “friends.”
The animals she makes are familiar to a century’s worth of children. The delicate illustrations of kittens in shorts, ducks in bonnets, and “bunnies in jackets with brass buttons” come with charming names like “Squirrel Nutkin” and “Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” — the whole adorable enterprise is nearly unbearable. The counterweight to all the sweetness would seem to be that Miss P was also a forward-looker, not only a conservationist in her later years but also something of a proto-feminist, campaigning in her local, unpushy way for women’s rights to make choices apart from men or parents.
And yet the film tries to have it all ways, painting the young Beatrix as a mostly obedient daughter with an unaggressively independent mind. Following her “creative” moment in the opening credits sequence, the film deposits Bea in the offices of her would-be publishers, the stuffy brothers who run London’s Frederick Warne & Co. “The city and I didn’t much like each other,” she says in voiceover. An unmarried woman of 32, she’s allowed limited movement, traversing urban streets with a chaperone (creaky Miss Wiggin, played by Matyelok Gibbs) and enduring the consistent disapproval of her mum (Barbara Flynn) (this disapproval is usually rendered in ways that will resonate with today’s class-conscious viewers, as when Mrs. Potter insists that Bea let the “servants” carry her dinner tray). Unwilling to marry a man within her class just because she’s supposed to, Beatrix instead pursues a career. She wants to publish her pictures — already in circulation as greeting cards — as a storybook.
Believing Beatrix’s book to be an unprofitable oddity, the Warnes assign the project to their youngest sibling, Norman (Ewan McGregor). He comes at it with an earnest, contagious delight, assuring her, “We shall give them a bunny book to conjure with!” (McGregor’s energetic delivery provides its own pleasures, mainly as it underlines the sheer awkwardness of the language.) Their venture, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (published in 1902), is a success, the first of some 23 books she will make over her lifetime, including The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.
Reactions at home are mixed. Mother worries that such distraction will ruin her chances at marriage. Her father, the ruddy-faced, big-mustachioed Rupert (Bill Paterson), is happy for her but tends to bend to his wife’s will. Flashbacks to Beatrix’s Victorian childhood (when she’s acted by Lucy Boynton) reveal that her creativity and preference to stay in her room alone with her “friends” are longstanding habits. When she entertains her brother at bedtime, she’s so enraptured by her own fictions that she imagines the creatures twitching their tails and scampering across the page, acting out her feelings when she’s unable to voice them. That these imaginings lead to conversations her mother can overhear does cause some concern, but the film attributes the problem to Mrs. Potter, unable to appreciate her daughter’s charming excesses as you do.
Here again, the tone is muted. Beatrix might be actually emotionally troubled, so stifled by contemporary social expectations that she escapes into a pretend world. At the same time, such immersion is also stifling in its own way, as the animals’ performances of her feelings — snotty little gestures, turning up their teeny noses or making bits of near-trouble — don’t really help her in the world.
Still, the movie insists, Bea’s “friends” provide a kind of compass: when another human, say, Norman, pauses to look into a picture and seems to appreciate its animated possibilities, he or she is deemed a worthy comrade. Such interruptions of the film’s step-by-step bio-storytelling don’t go provide much in the way of respite or resistance, however. Chris Noonan’s next-film-after-Babe doesn’t engage this alternative realm except as whimsy. Beatrix is eccentric. Her “friends” are cute.
The character who appears most likely to develop (who does not, alas) is Norman’s sister, the affable, enthusiastic, and forever single Amelia Emily Watson). Upon their first meeting, Amelia declares, “I have decided that you are going to be my friend!” And so they are, as Bea looks almost swept up by Amelia’s determination to be proud and pleased with her unmarried status. Men are only good for money and procreation, she asserts, and so women might as well enjoy themselves in their own ways. The movie doesn’t press, but Beatrix and Amelia look nearly primed for some turn-of-the-century sisterly intimacy.
But no. As soon as Bea falls for Norman (or realizes that she has), Amelia is happy to abandon her previous philosophizing. “Don’t be a fool,” she cries, “Marry him!” When Beatrix wonders what happened to Amelia’s insistence on the “blessings of being alone,” the sister-in-law-to-be asserts that her previous assertions were “Hogwash!” “You have a chance for happiness,” she says, her lip trembling. “And you’re worrying about me.” With that, Beatrix and Norman begin plotting out their future, and Amelia is left mostly by the wayside.
Alas. Though it makes clear that Beatrix goes on to use her considerable earnings to purchase land and preserve wildlife habitats, Miss Potter tends to stifle her vigor rather than explore it. In part, this effect is a function of Zellweger’s chirpy performance, but it’s also a matter of plot: despite the woman’s manifest self-sufficiency and boldness, the character Beatrix is shaped by details of her environment.
Predictably, she corresponds to biographical limits. But the film makes aesthetic and political choices too. Bea’s mother is oppressive in the most clichéd sort of ways and her romance dissolves into melodrama (declarations of love on a rainy train platform, letters delivered in dulcet voice-overs), all turning her increasingly and unnecessarily lackluster. You keep waiting for another Beatrix to break out, to match the giddy passion shown by her bunnies or Amelia, but she does not.