Friday, January 12, 2007

Miss Potter

The movie industry is getting much better at biopics; “Walk the Line” and “Ray” are just two quite recent examples of how the obvious limitations attached to the task of compressing a life into a two hour movie timeslot can be overcome with good writing, acting and directing. And so it is with the challenging subject of “Miss Potter”, about the wonderful English children’s book author, illustrator and naturalist Beatrix Potter. On the face of it Beatrix Potter is not a particularly obvious choice for a film. True she was a talented author, a wonderful illustrator and a pioneer of the need for conservation in her beloved Lake District. But over her long life not a lot really happened to her that would be the stuff of movies. “Miss Potter” overcomes this handicap quite wonderfully by concentrating on her relationship with, and engagement to, her publisher Norman Warne to illustrate her personal strength and character – especially her courage.

Beatrix Potter grew up in a prosperous London Victorian family and in a world where women of her genteel class were expected to know their place and obey their parents. Beatrix’s gradual emergence as an independent character is well treated in “Miss Potter” with a good use of flashbacks to her early childhood showing her growing love of animals and the natural world. Her talent was treated with patronising contempt by her parents – especially her monstrous mother. But Frederick Warne, the publisher, saw something in Beatrix’s work and took a risk in publishing Peter Rabbit. The youngest Warne brother, Norman, supervised the publication as his first real job and the diffident and kindly Norman gradually and subtly attracts Beatrix. The development of their mutual attraction is really well portrayed in the film – as are all of the obstacles put in their way. Not only must they always be accompanied by a chaperone but when, at last, they do manage to escape Miss Wiggin’s attention for a moment and declare their love for each other this declaration, when revealed to Beatrix’s parents, is vociferously opposed by them because Mr Warne is “in trade” and therefore not a suitable husband. One of the best moments in the film is when Beatrix reacts to this snobbery by informing her parents that they are themselves “parvenus” - that they come from a “trade” background as much as the Warne family does.

The snobbery of Beatrix Potter’s parents is shown in the context of the ruling morality (and hypocrisy) of London society in the late Victorian age. Beatrix’s escape from this claustrophobic world to the Lake District is well portrayed – as is her dogged commitment to the preservation of an area which was then being threatened by speculative builders. This is a good story – but not especially filmic, and the movie copes with this well with a brief scene at a property auction where Beatrix angers one of the speculators with her determination to put conservation ahead of profit. This is quite a modern and fashionable subject for our green conscious world but Beatrix Potter was an early adopter of the need for conservation and she had the substantial resources from her earnings to do something about it.

Beatrix Potter was a remarkable and admirable woman who overcame the prejudice and pretentiousness of the world she grew up in to exploit her talents and to follow her principles. She is well played in the movie by Renée Zellweger. I was a bit worried at the very beginning of the film that Ms Zellweger was going to give us a sort of Victorian Bridget Jones, but she soon morphed well into the character of Beatrix Potter and was convincing in the role. Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne is excellent as well – a retrained and believable performance. I also enjoyed Emily Watson’s rather butch Millie Warne, Norman’s sister and Beatrix’s confidant. The cinematography is excellent – not just in the beautiful Lake District scenes but also in capturing Victorian/Edwardian London.

Overall Miss Potter is a splendid, moving, engaging and interesting film. There may have been some artistic licence in both the story telling and in the characters. But that matters little if at the end we believe that the film has been true to the nature of its subject and is broadly accurate, as well as being entertaining.