Thursday, June 25, 2009

Miss Potter (2006)

Because you are fond of fairy tales . . .

... Beatrix Potter wrote to one of her favorite children in 1901, "I have made you a story all for yourself, a new one that nobody has read before."

Now, a century later, "Miss Potter" (directed by Chris Noonan, starring Rene Zellweger) has a new story to tell, and quite a fairy tale it is, too, with all the delightful magic of one of Beatrix Potter's own stories: winsome characters, luscious settings, strong period details. I was charmed by this film (viewed on DVD, with all the extras), and spent an enchanted evening watching it. As a movie, it is fine family entertainment--something that's hard to come by, these days.

But the film has been widely billed as a biopic, and if you were looking for a story that's true to Beatrix's life, this one might mislead you. Richard Maltby (who wrote the script and spent some 10 years trying to get it produced) and Chris Noonan have teamed up to give us a lovely fairy tale, but one that is based on some fairly fundamental misrepresentations of Beatrix's real life.

Take that elaborate Christmas party, for instance, in a festooned Potter mansion. This dramatically pivotal event could never have happened, for Rupert and Helen Potter were Dissenters who did not celebrate Christmas--much to Beatrix's disappointment, as a child longing for a tree and the trimmings. (In life, both the Potters seem to have been much more dour people than their on-screen representations.)

Or take those childhood visits to the Lake Districts, which never happened either. The Potters holidayed in Scotland until Beatrix was 16. Which means that she could not have met Willie Heelis, who was nearly five years younger than Beatrix, anyway (not older, as the film portrays him). Oh, and Willie was the son of a rector and the Heelis family belonged to quite a different social class from the one in which Willie is placed in the film. More misrepresentation (although the on-screen Willie is a real charmer.)

But the most unfortunate distortion of all is the decision to collapse the eight years it took for Beatrix to become independent enough to leave her parents. The film portrayed Norman's death as the lever that pried her from the Potters' grasp. Not so. Beatrix bought Hill Top a few months after Norman died in 1905, but did not leave her parents until 1913, when she married Willie. For eight long, difficult years, Beatrix commuted from her parents' home or holiday residence to Sawrey. During that time, she could get away only five or six times a year, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for as much as a fortnight. Norman's death was indeed the prod she needed to make a change, but it wasn't until Willie offered her another choice that she was finally able to free herself. Compressing this long-running family conflict into a matter of months and hinging the whole thing on Norman's death distorts Beatrix's character and makes her seem more decisively "modern" than she was in real life.

As a novelist engaged in creating historical fictions (some of them featuring Beatrix Potter), I am always aware of the challenges of representing real people in fictional contexts, and worry when real lives are seriously distorted to make a story more entertaining. I enjoyed this film as a film, and give it five stars for its entertainment value. As a biopic, I'd give it a two, three to be generous. Putting the two together, a four-minus.

Oh, and for the real story of Beatrix's life, you'll want to read Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Hill Top Farm (The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter), The Tale of Holly How, The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Mysteries), The Tale of Hawthorn House: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and four other forthcoming novels in the series.

Miss Potter trailer

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