"There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story; you never know where they'll take you," beloved children's author Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger) says in a voiceover in the opening scene of Miss Potter.
With this cinematic peek at the life of the woman behind classics such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, and the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, we get to experience this truism in reverse. Most of us have already seen where Peter, Jemima, and the like have taken us (via Potter's 23 bestsellers); with Miss Potter, we get the delight of seeing where they—and their author—traveled to get there.
Growing up in London in the latter half of the 1800s, shy Beatrix (Lucy Boynton) has pet bunnies, mice, and birds. When her wealthy family vacations in Scotland and the English Lake District (the latter of which is beautifully captured in lush pastoral scenes), the girl encounters frogs, ducks, and hedgehogs. All of these animals make their way to Beatrix's sketchpad—and her heart, as she comes to know the characters they inspire as friends. In those pre-TV days and with no playmates about during her rather academic and sheltered childhood, Beatrix conjures up stories about these animal friends to entertain her younger brother and herself.
Years later, in her early thirties, Beatrix sells her illustrations for greeting cards and eventually interests F. Warne & Co. in publishing her story about a naughty little bunny in a light blue coat with brass buttons. Utterly thrilled, Beatrix has no idea the Warne brothers, Harold (Anton Lesser) and Fruing (David Bamber), have decided to pass the silly little project on to their younger brother, Norman (Ewan McGregor), who's just asserted his independence by demanding a role in the family business.
One of the most delightful aspects of the movie is watching Beatrix and Norman come together on this project. Both of these misunderstood, earnest souls are battling family expectations—Beatrix's parents haven't the slightest idea why she keeps frittering about with her drawings and won't just settle into a proper marriage, and Norman's family won't take this young sibling seriously. With The Tale of Peter Rabbit (published in 1902), Beatrix and Norman set out to establish themselves by proving their families wrong. As we all know, the book is a huge success—and the beginning of a beautiful partnership (perhaps in more ways than one).
There was some English angst about American Renee Zellweger being cast as Beatrix, a beloved British icon. In early woohoo-I'm-getting-published scenes, Zellweger almost plays it a bit too over the top. But she soon recovers and finds the right pitch for the woman who's both behind the times for not marrying and starting a family and yet ahead of the times by forging her own career. Finding that right tone is no small task considering Beatrix occasionally talks to her illustrations, which, in a clever bit of animation, sometimes wiggle, waddle, or wink back. In the wrong hands, Beatrix could have been boring, too eccentric, or bossy (she is rather fussy about all the publishing details). But Zellweger saves Beatrix from all that—instead making her a just-right blend of progressive and provincial.