"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.

Renee Zellweger stars as Beatrix Potter

Renee Zellweger stars as Beatrix Potter

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.

Ewan McGregor as the publisher Norman Warne, who works with Beatrix

Ewan McGregor as the publisher Norman Warne, who works with Beatrix

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.

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Millie Warne (Emily Watson) befriends Beatrix

Millie Warne (Emily Watson) befriends Beatrix

McGregor is completely winning as the wide-eyed Norman; watching the young publisher come into his own as a professional and a man is a joy. Fellow Brit Emily Watson plays his feisty single sister Millie, who greets Beatrix with the pronouncement "I've decided that we shall become friends" and readily shares her opinions about the ills of "domestic enslavement." Her presence—as well as that of Beatrix's constant companion Miss Wiggin (Matyelok Gibbs), who's ancient, tiny, and seemingly physically incapable of smiling—keeps the film from being too Polyanna. As do some not-so-idyllic plot twists toward the end of the movie.

Miss Potter is for moviegoers who are drawn more to the delightful than the destructive. But no matter your taste, it's undeniably refreshing to see a PG-rated movie for adults done so well. We see characters change and grow, we watch people actually get to know one another before falling in love, and we're treated to beautiful shots of English countryside.

Beatrix works her magic with a pen

Beatrix works her magic with a pen

For those of us who grew up reading Potter's books, it would have been interesting to get a more in-depth look at the process she went through to concoct her characters and their adventures. Instead, Miss Potter focuses less on the life of the author and more on the life of the woman—her relationships, her struggles to gain her parents' understanding and respect, her role as a woman in early 20th century London, and her long, lonely road to finding her way in the world. Once she does find that way, her legacy is impressive—both her creative body of work that's delighted children for more than 100 years, as well as her work as a conservationist, preserving the English countryside. In the end, The Tale of Miss Potter is an inspiration.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Beatrix wrestles with her parents' expectations for her life—sometimes even defies them. In light of the biblical mandate to honor father and mother, what do you think of her words and actions? Do you think her parents are always fair? Is Beatrix justified in defying her parents' wishes? Why or why not?

  2. Both Beatrix and Millie decide they aren't going to marry. What cultural realities of that day inform that decision? Do you think they make this decision for right and/or healthy reasons? What would you think of a Christian woman in our current culture making that decision? Are there right and/or healthy reasons for such a decision today?

  3. Trace the journey of grief in the movie. What needed steps for grappling with grief do we see? In what ways do others help in the healing process? What new work do we eventually see born after this death?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Miss Potter is rated PG for brief mild language. There's hardly anything objectionable in the film. There's an off-screen death, and Beatrix yells at her parents (though one could argue with good reason). While based on the life of a children's author, it's not a children's movie. Younger children would likely fidget through this grown-up drama.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/18/07

Peter Rabbit. Squirrel Nutkin. Miss Moppet. Timmy Tiptoes. Jemima Puddle-duck. Do these names mean anything to you?

If not, that's a shame. Children's literature is lacking in the kind of innocent, imaginative storytelling that made author Beatrix Potter famous and beloved. And it's not too late to gain an appreciation for Potter's work.

René e Zellweger plays the author in Miss Potter as a model for the conscientious and ambitious women who would follow her example. It turns out this celebrity of children's storytelling lived out a meaningful tale of her own that grownups can enjoy and learn from.

"The pleasures of Miss Potter are few and simple, but they are sublime," says Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn). "Please don't be prepared to like Miss Potter too much; it may let you down early on. But let its gentleness and simplicity grow on you—don't seek to know too much about it ahead of time, and let its words take you to surprising and delightful places."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "Miss Potter is a beautifully-filmed movie that hearkens back to the days when propriety was everything. … It is a sobering study on the power of the encouragement—or discouragement—that a parent can give children, which can either break their spirit or launch them into their purposes."

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Mainstream criticsare divided. Some are bothered by a little too much sweetness and innocence, wishing the film was a more grownup affair. I don't think Peter Cottontail would mind.

from Film Forum, 01/25/07

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says the film "is a charming look at the challenges of a gentle, but bold woman trying to buck many spoken and unspoken turn-of-the-century rules and establish a commendable career for herself—without neglecting matters of the heart.Though it's a 'chick flick' any way you slice it, the filmmakers are careful to avoid an over-the-top feministic slant, and the outcome is both sweet and inspiring."

Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, "In today's movie universe, the charming biopic Miss Potter is an anomaly, if not downright quaint. Foul language does not batter you, no one is shot or beaten, nothing explodes, implodes or regurgitates. And the screen is devoid of toilet-tinged cartoons, near-naked co-eds or insipidly mouthy fratboys. You're left, then, with a sweet, simple story about a young woman's creative imagination and determined spirit."

Miss Potter
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for brief mild language)
Directed By
Chris Noonan
Run Time
1 hour 28 minutes
Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson
Theatre Release
March 09, 2007 by Weinstein Company
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