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Potter's clay

Movies | Biopic wonderfully portrays an author and an era

Issue: "Barrier riffs," Feb. 10, 2007

Beatrix Potter has captured millions of children's hearts with her tales of the blue-coated Peter Rabbit and her other bunny creations. But it is the English author's own story that may prove most enchanting, as Potter might say. Directed by Chris Noonan (Babe), Miss Potter, rated PG for brief mild language, is a biopic of Beatrix Potter's complex life-her struggles to fall in love, her love of the English countryside, and above all, her relationship to her art.

Unmarried and aging in London at the turn of the 20th century, Potter (Renée Zellweger) endeavors to do more than live off family wealth. Having drawn and told stories all her life, she attempts to get one of her tales published. When her first book is a surprise hit, her publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), slowly takes a romantic interest in her and they become engaged.

But perhaps the most interesting relationship in this highly relational film is the one between Potter and Warne's sister, Millie. The two bond over their resolve never to find a spouse: "I shan't marry-I shall draw," Potter declares at one point. Millie, played by Emily Watson, helps give a bit of an edge to a film that otherwise might be downy soft.

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There's much to like about Noonan's recreation of Potter's life. Potter's own drawings play a prominent role in the film. Again and again, a young Potter explains that her works of art-her rabbits and other animal creations-are her friends. Using animation, Noonan shows how Potter's animals come to life in her mind's eye.

And as a period piece, Miss Potter shows how much dating has changed. Potter's mother dreads the idea of Beatrix actually marrying a person with a steady, well-paying job. As a high-class socialite, her mother prefers for her daughter a young man who inherits wealth, rather than works for it. Ultimately that shows the complexities in Potter's life: a woman simultaneously moving forward as a successful author and backward as she retreats both away to the city and into her stories.

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