Judge Katie Herrell has a strategy for making her garden look as good as Beatrix Potter's. It's called CGI.
"When you read about Beatrix Potter's life, it's impossible to believe
it's not fiction."
Miss Potter is a seemingly simple tale about a female author and illustrator—Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit fame—in Victorian England. But underneath the crinoline and high collars, is the tale of a surprisingly progressive and opinionated, yet yearning, woman. Miss Potter aptly and unobtrusively exposes all of Beatrix's many dimensions.
Facts of the Case
Author and illustrator Beatrix Potter—played by Renée Zellweger—was a woman out of step with her well-to-do family and the Victorian era in which she lived. Astonishingly creative while also isolated and introverted, Beatrix was friends only with the anthropomorphic characters of her drawings. Refusing all of the suitors thrust upon by her high-nosed mother, Beatrix preferred heeling it from publisher to publisher trying to sell her stories.
Only one publishing house bit, and soon Beatrix's "friends" were the property of a sensitive novice—played by Ewan McGregor—aiming to prove his might to a pair of conniving brothers. The relationship between publisher and author would transform both their lives and bring Peter Rabbit and friends to the masses.
Beatrix is a name befitting a creative genius, while the movie title Miss Potter is decidedly elementary. Yet despite this dribbling introduction, the actual movie Miss Potter is a landscape's dream come true and a homage to all the Miss, Ms., and Mrs. names in existence today.
The books of Beatrix Potter are a staple of childhood with their bunnies in suits and frogs in tails. But the actual story of their author is less familiar and the storyline of Miss Potter is a decidedly adult tale. We meet Beatrix on the receiving end of a publisher's meeting gone bad. Nodding off in the corner is Beatrix's matron-in-waiting, the all-black attired Miss Wiggin, a prune-faced woman serving as a public service announcement to all unmarried women. Beatrix is without makeup but with plenty of fortitude as she girds herself for another rejection. The bare, ruddy, and slightly crinkled face of Ms. Zellweger is a remarkable wardrobe accessory for this period piece. Pictures of celebrities sans makeup earn arrows and exclamation points in the tabloids, but seldom do they grace the silver screen. In fact, it is usually the presence of really horrible make-up—think Charlize Theron in Monster—that earns critics' praise for challenging the exterior-focused superficiality of Hollywood. But here Zellweger's face legitimately appears to be in the bare.
Beatrix's bare face is better for showing her elation when one publishing brother decides that, yes, there is a place for Potter's bunnies in their firm. With a characteristic Zellweger burst of happiness, Potter throws caution to the wind and asks her carriage driver to chauffeur her faster and faster through the parks of London. In this scene we are not only introduced to Potter's family wealth, but to the fabulous landscape scenery that defines this film, as well as the fiery woman who so wants to be accepted by the establishment but doesn't wish to conform to all the stodginess.
Of all the Zellweger starring and supporting films I've seen, this is the first time I've viewed her character as a body-and-mind adult. Never mind that Beatrix lives and works, well past her youth, in her childhood bedroom, under the thumb of her demanding and disappointed mother and attached to the purse strings of her bushy-faced father. In this film the impishness of Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones's Diary is gone, although the uncertainty lingers. The round apple cheeks are a bit strained in Miss Potter, and for the first time her character seems to harbor to-the-core purpose in life.
Zellweger's gravitas in this role contrasts to McGregor's magician-like presence. With a well-groomed mustache and perfectly black and seemingly positioned moles, McGregor's character seems odd and unrealistic. I can't put my finger on the exact problem with McGregor's portrayal of Norman Warne, except to say he seemed fictional. Beatrix talks to her drawings and watches them come alive but even this eccentricity seemed fitting of an artist of her sensibilities. Warne, on the other hand, had a bit of Willy Wonka in him, even if it wasn't of the purple psychedelic variety.
The other characters are subtly perfect, even if a bit stereotypical. Warne's sister Millie (played by Emily Watson) is a rousing "old maid" who claims to be, and is believably, happy in her husband-free life. But she is equally believable when she excites over Beatrix's prospects of marriage, and admits she would jump at her own love-induced opportunity. This is the first social issue Miss Potter addresses head-on. Being unmarried—a black mark during this time period—is viewed with freedom, ambition, and hope.
The next social issue of Beatrix's—land conservation—creeps slowly into the movie. The first jaw-dropping scene of the English countryside is when Beatrix's family heads to the Lake District for the summer. At this point I paused the film, as the shot stretched impossibly wide encompassing the most placid lake I've even seen which fronted a watercolor-like expanse of hills and trees and flowers. It was truly the best scenery shot I've ever seen on film. Today, it is easy to be skeptical of such a shot, wondering just how much digitalization has to play in the colors and clarity. However, my doubts were quelled in the special features when I learned that a beautiful home in the Lake District—which Beatrix later purchases and runs as a working farm—was a legitimate house where the producers had painstakingly planted a wonderful garden in the front yard. That attention to detail in this film is impeccable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My main issue with this film was the animation. I thought that Beatrix talking to her characters was eccentric, but not insane. However, the film animates the characters she talks to, making them jump off the page and seemingly interacting with Beatrix. I thought this entire concept a bit fantastical and wondered if the actual Beatrix thought her characters were "real." Furthermore, I thought the animation was out of sync with the artistry of the film itself. It seemed like the producers thought that since Beatrix was a children's author, the movie of her life should also appeal to children and adding animation would accomplish that.
Miss Potter is a beautiful film with multiple, meaningful life messages.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Director Commentary
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