Miss Potter (2006)

Starring: Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paterson, Barbara Flynn, Emily Watson, Lloyd Owen

Directed by: Chris Noonan

Rating: 1 2 3

The Tale of Peter Rabbit - Beatrix Potter's first book

A certain film critic, who shall remain nameless (mainly because I've forgotten who they are), scornfully dismissed Miss Potter as being 'as cutesy-wootsy as the author's books'.

Er, wait just one minute: have you ever actually read a Beatrix Potter book? Read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, for example, in which our cheeky chappy hero loses his tail to an irascible owl? Or the tale of poor stupid Jemima Puddle Duck, whose eggs are devoured by a smooth talking 'foxy whiskered gentlemen'? Or that fine capitalist fable The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, in which our eponymous furry friends open a village store, allow their customers too much credit and end up going bankrupt. How adorable.

Like their heroine's little books, Miss Potter may at first glance appear to be pretty, charming and fairly insubstantial. But, just as Beatrix's charming illustrations belie tales of harsh pragmatism and nature red in tooth and claw, so the chocolate box Lake District landscapes, prissy Edwardian mores and ecstatic declamations ('how delicious!' Beatrix exclaims at every opportunity) serve as window dressing for a film that is at heart moving, engaging and really rather sad.

Admittedly, the film's initial attempts to paint Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) as some kind of proto-feminist fall somewhat flat, as we witness her trailing around publishers in her father's carriage, little old lady chaperone in tow.

Ewan McGregor and  Renee Zellweger in Miss Potter

The turning point in her life comes when she meets Norman Warner (Ewan McGregor). The youngest in the Warner family, he is keen to make his mark in his brothers' publishing business, and far from being piqued when he's handed Beatrix's Tale of Peter Rabbit to deal with, he takes it on as a challenge. 'We'll give them a bunny book to reckon with!' he exclaims - and the rest, of course, is history. Except I'm not sure that Beatrix and Norman's genteel, delicate romance is actually history - but it makes a good story, so who are we to complain?

Thanks to Warner, Beatrix finds the strength to stand up to her parents (played marvelously by Barbara Flynn and a splendidly bewhiskered Bill Paterson) and carve out her own destiny. Her struggle to escape the strictures of her class and live life on her own terms is admirable, and you can't applauding her progress from nervous spinster daughter to accomplished, self-sufficient, powerful Lakeland landowner.

Emily Watson and Renee Zellweger in Miss Potter

Ewan McGregor gives his usual charming turn as the enthusiastic young Warner, while Renée Zellwegger is alternatively ridiculously affected and mannered and heartbreakingly believable as the film's heroine - although, with her windblown hairdo and weatherbeaten complexion, she's the spitting image of the Beatrix Potter of Lakeland teatowel fame. Emily Watson also gives a heartwarming performance as Norman's sister Milly, a woman who wears her independent singleton status like a merit badge, but secretly just wants to be loved.

Miss Potter is at times a bit too cute for its own good, and it does have a tendency to be twee, sentimental and ever so slightly irritating. But that doesn't stop it being a respectful, enchanting and fitting tribute to its heroine, a beautifully packaged film that deals with love and loss - and fluffy bunnies - with dignity and warmth.

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