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January 10, 2007

Film-making by numbers aimed at the Japanese market: Miss Potter - Chris Noonan

Posted by David Womersley

Miss Potter
Directed by Chris Noonan
certificate PG, 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - wonders why the Japanese are so obsessed with Beatrix Potter.

The chances are that, if you visit Hill Top, the former Lake District home of Beatrix Potter, during the summer months, the narrow lane leading to this pretty farmhouse will be choked with coaches. Once you finally make it to the house - an curiously miniaturised building, apparently constructed at a ratio of about 8:10 of a normal dwelling - more likely than not you will find it full of Japanese tourists, who, often slightly miniaturised themselves, look very much at home as they wander round the interiors unconsciously familiar to generations of children as the settings for many of Potter's tales.

What is the affinity which draws the Japanese half-way round the world to take photographs of this building? Is it just that shared characteristic of slight miniaturisation - the call, as one might say, of the twee to the wee? What can the culture which produced manga comics see in the adventures of Peter Rabbit, where the catastrophe is to be put to bed early with a dose of camomile tea?

You will find few clues to that riddle in Miss Potter, a film in which a life lived more or less without incident (save the happy circumstance of becoming a wealthy author) has been turned improbably into the basis for a Merchant-Ivory style excursion into cinema-land's idea of Late Victorian England, a world of chaperones, stuffy parents, and frustrated young love.

In Miss Potter, a lonely but imaginative young girl perseveres with her painting (thus pluckily refusing to compromise as her art-loving barrister father had done), becomes a published author, loses her fiancÚ to illness, but finds another man to marry, and buys up large parts of the Lake District. And that is more or less it.

Do you ever think, as you look at some of the illustrations to Beatrix Potter's works, that they have a faint air of painting by numbers about them? Well, Miss Potter is film-making by numbers. The casting of Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter makes it impossible to fend off the thought that Miss Potter is Bridget Jones without the sex, particularly since Zellweger uses the same accent and the same repertoire of facial expressions - the twitches, pursed lips and sly smiles - that we have seen before. Even the casting of Ewan McGregor as the doomed Norman Warne has an "off the rack" quality to it. It makes Miss Potter a Moulin Rouge where the man dies, rather than the woman. When the animal characters in Potter's sketches start to move, and she speaks to them as if they are real, once again what was originally an innovative cinematic technique has been employed in a very routine and curiously pointless way. Still, after a while one is grateful for any animation.

Did it have to be this way? Was it not possible to make a film about Potter's life which was not so bland and formulaic? There are at least three missed tricks which might have provided a bit of roughage.

In the first place (as we have been reminded by Linda Lear's recent biography Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature), Potter's interest in nature was not the sentimental expedient to compensate for parental misunderstanding and neglect portrayed in Miss Potter. On the contrary, she was a serious naturalist, who did important work on fungi and fossils. This tough-minded figure is nowhere to be glimpsed in Miss Potter.

Secondly, are her children's books really the cosy and cute works you would infer they were from seeing this film? I suspect that the complete sets of Beatrix Potter which, at least a few years ago, were the English middle classes' christening gift of choice, were gratefully unwrapped and then consigned to a rarely-visited shelf in the nursery. Certainly I found that, say, a bedtime reading of The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or of Pigling Bland would be guaranteed to produce, not contented slumbers, but a tear-stained child waking one up at two and three and four o'clock. There is a trace of straightforward violence in many of these stories which is not, I think, to be accounted for fully by invoking the naturalism of a woman who had lived close to nature and who therefore knew its frequently bloody ways. The violence in these tales is not the unreflective, innocent, violence used by animals towards other animals, for the simple reason that these animals wear clothes and talk. This imparts something more malevolent and conscious to their violence. It is not therefore an accident that in Simon Gray's Butley one of the embittered, failed academics has retreated into repeated readings of Beatrix Potter - this is the reverse of an escape from his grievances and wounds.

Thirdly, there is Potter the landowner, who bought up large tracts of the Lake District and then preserved them by leaving them to the National Trust on her death in 1943. This is touched on towards the end of Miss Potter, where however her over-bidding at farm auctions is presented as just another instance of her engaging pawkiness, rather than anything more. But the fact remains that, if one were to think of the writer who has exerted the greatest practical influence on the landscape of the Lake District, it is to Beatrix Potter, rather than to William Wordsworth or John Ruskin, that one would have to turn.

Why was this film made? There is nothing intrinsic to the story which would warrant it. It is hard then to avoid the conclusion that its producers had in mind nothing more than the coachloads of Japanese who throng the roads leading to Hill Top. It would be interesting in due course to see the global figures for this film: I predict a Japanese harvest (where, I gather, it will open only later this year, allowing expectation to build). But Miss Potter surely will not enjoy a long run here.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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