The tale of Peter Rabbit's creator

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Dramatizing the life of Beatrix Potter requires a fanciful touch. The creator of the incomparable Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck gets just that in "Miss Potter," written by Richard Maltby Jr. and directed by Chris Noonan, whose last film, "Babe," was 11 years ago.

With such a long gap between projects, one might expect Noonan to pull out all the stops. Instead, he keeps things feather light. When, for example, Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) talks to her imaginary characters, they spring to life before our eyes as animated scamps.

For long stretches of the movie, Beatrix is emotionally isolated from other people and from her surroundings, but Noonan never presents that isolation as a retreat from reality. On the contrary, her imaginings are an intensification of life that, as it turns out, connects deeply with children throughout the world.

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The movie takes place primarily during the years 1902-06. Beatrix is first introduced to us as a spinsterish artist living with her uncomprehending nouveau riche parents in London. Although her mother (Barbara Flynn) is forever flinging inappropriate suitors at her, her father (the wonderful Bill Paterson) is more indulgent of his daughter's gifts. With his tufted hair and squiggly features, he might have stepped right out of Beatrix's menagerie.

When she finally lands a publisher for her "bunny book," she makes the acquaintance of her first-time editor Norman (Ewan McGregor), whose older brothers have assigned him the project as a way to keep him busy. No one expects the book to succeed. It not only becomes a bestseller but Norman falls for her big time.

Their dewy, tentative love affair is the movie's freshest aspect. Although Zellweger strains a bit too hard at being eccentric, McGregor is entrancingly valorous playing opposite her. The pairing seems magically right. When things take an unexpectedly sad twist halfway through, the movie loses some of its immense charm.

Aside from McGregor's turn, another key performance comes from Emily Watson as Norman's pesky, good-hearted sister Millie. Watson isn't on-screen long but her presence is indelible. She quickly fills in Millie's quirks and then shows us the deeply caring woman beneath all the folderol. Millie's the perfect soul mate for Beatrix because, like Norman, she sees straight through to the nub of things.

In addition to being a beloved author and illustrator, Beatrix is also presented as an early feminist and environmentalist who took control of her literary empire and saved vast acres of luscious farmland from greedy developers, eventually bequeathing property to Britain's National Trust. With all this in her favor, one might expect the filmmakers to burnish Beatrix with a saintly glow. But the radiance emanating from her has an earthly light. She's grounded by goodness. Grade: B+

Rated PG for brief, mild language.

Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: None. Profanity: 2 mild expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 1 scene of drinking.

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