The year is 1902, and 36-year-old Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), having rejected all the suitors worthy of her family’s lofty perch on the social ladder, still lives with her parents, and a platoon of servants. Though her father is a lawyer (and artist manqué), his inheritance allows him to spend his days hanging at a gentleman’s club. Her mother, too, brought money to the marriage, and her principal function is to maintain a proper household.
Apart from the servants, Helen Potter (Flynn) cannot abide the presence of a tradesman (i.e., someone who actually works for a living) within their London residence. Beatrix’s commercial success as a writer is a challenge to Edwardian notions of feminine gentility as well as to parental control of a headstrong daughter.
In the opening scene, Beatrix submits the manuscript of The Tale of Peter Rabbit to two dour brothers who run a publishing firm. Filled with the author’s own pert illustrations, the book recounts the misadventures of an imaginary leporine scamp; Beatrix considers him a personal friend. Though the Warnes are not amused, they acquire The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a pacifying project for their inexperienced younger brother, Norman (McGregor).
Taking it as a personal challenge, Norman exclaims to Beatrix: “We shall give them a bunny book to conjure with!” They do indeed, in the process asserting independence from their respectable respective families and complicity with each other. Norman’s spinster sister Millie (Watson) is a gumptious confederate and confidante who shares, at least temporarily, her new friend’s bold antipathy to matrimony.
Miss Potter revels in a creative life whose creativity appears joyful and spontaneous. It is impossible not to root for Beatrix in her zestful battle against Edwardian fustiness. She marshals wit and tenacity to defy taboos against female autonomy. When sales of her books about rabbits, mice, and hedgehogs make her financially independent, indeed rich, she clashes with developers who scheme to pillage the idyllic terrain that inspired English Romanticism.
Though a farmer named MacGregor is Peter Rabbit’s nemesis, local farmers are Beatrix’s natural ally against commercial subdivision of the Lake District. Director Chris Noonan was warier of farmers, accessories to butchery, in Babe. Here, he focuses on the coming-of-age of a beloved, eccentric anthropomorphizer, and, while not portraying the complete life, he conjures up a full one.
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