In 1902, suffocated by her social-climbing parents, Beatrix Potter (Zellweger) makes a bid for independence by taking her tale of Peter Rabbit to publishers. She finds support and the love of her life in Norman Warne (McGregor), but must brave opposition at home.
Once upon a time, dear children, long before the boy wizard Harry was conceived, there was a real and extraordinary Potter, a girl named Beatrix. The poster campaign for her story promises a tale as enchanting as any of her classic children’s books, and that is both the blessing and curse of this iconically English affair. While the Cumbria Tourist Board must be hugging themselves in anticipation of the new enthusiasts in stout shoes who will be inspired to take in Potter’s Hill Top Farm and environs come spring and the daffodils, the film values whimsy, eccentricity and heartache over Potter’s trailblazing accomplishments. Australian director Chris Noonan reminds us of his magic with Babe when Beatrix’s special friends — Jemima Puddle-Duck and that naughty bunny in the blue jacket, Peter — come charmingly to life in her creative imagination. But these cutesy touches do make her look somewhat dotty.
Renée Zellweger is cute as a button, all perky in her prim little cossies and with her adorably emphatic accent. No reference is made to Beatrix’s earlier disappointments — like the neglect of her important botanical work by the scientific bodies of the day because of her gender. But Zellweger does touchingly convey a remarkable woman ahead of her time, who has borne much but miraculously maintained a purposeful sense of self-worth even when dismissively viewed as a spinster housekeeper.
Ewan McGregor, sporting a twinkle as big as his Edwardian moustache, is a delight as her romantic interest. Emily Watson as Norman’s sister Millie, a prototype feminist who serves as Beatrix’s sole confidante, heads a fine supporting cast that includes Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn as the Potter parents, whose absurd pretentions blind them to her brilliance and growing fame.
One doesn’t need to know Beatrix’s history to sense, when the lovers part on a rainy train platform, poignantly kissing in a photogenic cloud of engine steam, that things may not go quite according to their romantic plans. But it is gratifying that this does acknowledge Beatrix’s pioneering conservationism, and her generous gift to the nation of a large swathe of the Lake District. Windermere, here we come.
Pitched awkwardly neither for children nor cool young adults its very sweet, very nice and just the thing for a girlie matinée with mum and nan.