Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Worth Watching: Miss Potter (2006)

Title: Miss Potter
Director: Chris Noonan
Language: English
Rating: PG

Based on events in the life of Beatrix Potter, the film begins with Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) seeking out publishers for The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In one publishing house she's grudgingly assigned to the most inexperienced editor, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), with the expectation that her book will flop. Instead Beatrix becomes a popular author, with Peter Rabbit the first of many characters she introduces to the world. The film depicts her vivid imagination, her love of writing, art, and the natural world, and the way she uproots herself, with love and losses along the way, from the London home she shares with her parents to Hill Top Farm in England's Lake District.

The gentleness of the film tempers the characters. Even Beatrix's mother, Helen (Barbara Flynn), is not as abrasive as she might have been; she isn't malicious but exasperated, unable to understand her daughter's inclinations (though it still feels as if the film flattened her character to turn her into a mouthpiece of upper class snobbery). Beatrix gets sniffed at for being an unmarried lady with literary and artistic dreams, and until she meets Norman her work is viewed with condescension. But the film has no real villains.

What Beatrix struggles against is a world of stultifying constraints and soft expectations. Her passion for her work keeps her from getting dragged into a narrow life with a stale social circle and handful of acceptable activities. Beatrix resists, sometimes angrily but for the most part playfully. At the start of the film she has no friends except for the characters she's imagined. The money she eventually earns as a best-selling author allows her greater freedom from other people's control and grants her the ability to lead her own life, a world inhabited by her characters and by the people she loves.

Printing the book

Beatrix Potter's drawings are the most vibrant characters in the film, and the other characters - Beatrix herself, Norman, Beatrix's kindly father, Rupert (Bill Paterson), who gave up his own artistic dreams - tend to be at their most lively when their thoughts and hearts are caught up with Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck.

The film shows the self-realization of an individual, an author and artist who finds her true home and reaches a kind of peace in her life. Norman and his sister, Millie (Emily Watson), are the first people who see Beatrix for who she is, unconditionally.

At first Beatrix and Norman are partners and co-conspirators; Beatrix wants to get her work published, and Norman wants to prove that he can back a successful book. Their partnership develops into a warm friendship full of mutual admiration, which further develops into love. Both of them are awkward and shy. They grow towards one another like two odd plants mingling their leaves and letting their stems intertwine.

Beatrix and Norman

Millie and Beatrix, who are close, steadfast friends, make for an interesting contrast in character. Millie is more bold and outspoken than Beatrix; she likes to make a statement, to joke and say shocking things, whereas Beatrix tends to be more quiet and reflective, calling little attention to herself outside of her work. But even though Beatrix is more subdued, she has firmer convictions and sticks to them more consistently, working on her books and later on devoting herself to land conservation in the Lake District.

Memorable sights and sounds
Lakes, trees, golden grass and wooded slopes, farmhouses with airy, dusty rooms full of treasures: these are some of the visual delights offered by the film. Beatrix's room in London is also lovely, with its window seat and long table full of watercolors.

Her art is beautiful. Occasionally the film animates the creatures to show how alive they are to her, but even better are the shots that linger over the still images, warm and full of life, giving you the sense that if you look away the animals really will start moving around.

Stand-out scenes
I loved the opening sequence, with close-ups of Beatrix preparing the instruments of her art and starting to paint in blue colors. A glass of water clouds up with blue.

There's also a poignant scene where in the midst of grief Beatrix tries to paint, and her creatures flee from dark fish and birds that threaten to consume them. She's isolated in her room, until Millie comes and helps bring her back out into the world.

Further thoughts
The film would go well with a blanket and a mug of tea on a rainy afternoon. It's gentle, warm, poignant and quietly inspiring.

I like how it shows the joy an artist and writer takes in her work and the world around her. However, I would have also wanted to see Beatrix's scientific pursuits, particularly her interest in mycology, the study of fungi. It would have been interesting to get a deeper look into the mind of someone who can observe the world with both an exacting scientific eye and imagination and whimsy.

Beatrix Potter at work

The first lines of the film: "There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You can never quite tell where they'll take you."

*All images link back to their source (Flixster community).