London, 1902: Thirty-six year old Beatrix (Renee Zellweger) is a spinster living in fashionable Kensington with her independently wealthy but socially insecure parents (Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson); their money, after all, is only one generation removed from factory owners and entrepreneurs — common tradesmen. The Potters have given up on finding a suitable husband for their only daughter, and Beatrix's mother denigrates her artistic ambitions as frivolous and unbecoming. But Beatrix is determined to find a publisher for the children's book she's written and illustrated with charmingly anthropomorphized drawings of the farmyard animals that have captivated her since the family began vacationing in Northern England's agrarian Lake District. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is repeatedly rejected, until Frederick Warne & Company take it on, not because brothers Harold and Fruing Warne (Anton Lesser, David Bamber) think it's commercial, but because they need a project to mollify younger sibling Norman (Ewan McGregor), who's clamoring for a chance to enter the family business. Fruing and Harold see Miss Potter's silly little "bunny book" as the perfect way to ensure he'll fail dismally and go back to looking after their aging mother (Phyllida Law). The Tale of Peter Rabbit is instead a runaway success — one that enchants even the Potters' indolent, well-born friends — and Beatrix finds both a partner in crime in Norman's freethinking, unmarried sister, Millie (Emily Watson), and a beau in Norman himself.
Sadly, Potter's life was not a fairy tale. But even in the face of tragedy, Noonan and Maltby keep the story's overall tone optimistic, and the conceit of occasionally animating Potter's drawings is entirely appropriate to a willfully eccentric woman who refers to her imaginary creatures as "friends." The period costumes and decor are handsome, though the historical accuracy of the actress' unmade-up look is cruel, making both Zellweger and Watson resemble undercooked suet puddings. Though Potter's life was privileged and lacked high drama, she defied restrictive social proprieties to carve out her own place in the world. She even pioneered land-conservation efforts by buying hundreds of acres of unspoiled land in the Cumbrian Lake District, which she bequeathed to the U.K.'s then-fledgling National Trust for future generations. Criticizing such a gentle film too vigorously would be like giving Peter Rabbit or Tom Kitten a swift kick in the nose. Maitland McDonagh leave a comment
Directed by Chris Noonan (BABE) and scripted by noted playwright Richard Maltby Jr., this modest look at the real life behind the watercolor fantasy world of Beatrix Potter's delicately witty children's books is endearing without being especially engaging.