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Fuzzy-wuzzy she wasn't

Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, was a rebel by her day's Victorian standards.

December 24, 2006|Richard Covington | Special to The Times

OF all the words to describe Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, the hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddle-Duck and numerous other furred and feathered critters, "bitchy" is not the first that comes to mind. But that is how Chris Noonan, the Australian director of "Miss Potter," which opens in limited release Friday, advised Renee Zellweger to spice up her portrayal of the revered children's author.

Zellweger balked at first. "I wasn't sure how 'bitchy' came into play," she said.

"Then I realized he meant not to oversentimentalize her, but to let her sharp wit come through," the actress continued. "She could be so forthright it made people uncomfortable; she was not one to suffer fools gladly." Even Graham Greene got a tongue-lashing when he speculated in an article that a "dark period of Miss Potter's art" was due to an emotional ordeal. She was simply suffering from the flu, the children's author harrumphed in an irritated letter, adding that she could not abide Greene's Freudian brand of criticism.

Beatrix Potter as "The Devil Wears Prada"? Not likely. But for the suffocating milieu of turn-of-the-century London and her social-climbing parents, both heirs to textile manufacturing fortunes, she was a rebel, said Noonan, who had a hit with an endearingly dotty human talking to animals in the 1995 film "Babe."

"She was like a modern woman plunked into the middle of Victorian England and forced to cope with its incredibly restrictive values," he observed. "She refused to subscribe to the whole scheme of things that was set out for young women at the time." Instead of marrying into aristocracy, as her parents -- her mother in particular -- wanted so desperately, their 35-year-old only daughter had the brazenness not only to draw and write books, but to surreptitiously fall in love with her editor and publisher Norman Warne, played by Ewan McGregor.

"People trying to climb the social ladder like the Potters were more concerned about the class system than anyone else," McGregor said. "They had inherited money and didn't work and that was the kind of man they wanted Beatrix to marry, some lazy layabout." Despite her prim, self-effacing manner, Beatrix was intractably stubborn. In the movie's first scene with Norman, the unpublished author insists on conditions for printing her first book so that "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" will be affordable for children. "She was absolutely self-assured," said McGregor.

Zellweger found Beatrix one of her most difficult roles. "I've never had a character who continues to elude me the way she does even now. It's rare that she says directly what she thinks; I really had to read between the lines of her letters and her journal to understand her."

From age 14 to 30, Beatrix kept a secret diary written in code, mainly to hide it from her mother's prying eyes. But even the decoded diary reveals little of her true emotions. "It was a constant battle for me, hoping I was interpreting her character in the right way," the actress remarked.

Zellweger focused on capturing the vulnerability and resilience of the determined author as she struggles to please her parents and herself in a tragically doomed love affair. Even McGregor's florid mustache fails to upstage her.

"When Chris sent me a photo of Norman with his spectacular, big 'stache, I said, 'Well, we've got to go for it,' " McGregor joked. So the actor grew his own, darkening it with dye to more closely resemble the publisher.

Unlike the enigmatic Beatrix, Norman was blessedly uncomplicated. A bachelor caring for his invalid mother, he enjoyed playing with his nieces and nephews. "Beatrix fell for his softness," the actor said. That, and the monster mustache. "That's all you need, really," McGregor quipped.

Miss Piggy almost 'Miss Potter'

FILMED largely in the Lake District, a stunning mountain region 280 miles north of London where Beatrix spent much of her life, and the Isle of Man (which contributed a quarter of the $26-million budget), "Miss Potter" had a tortuous, 16-year odyssey to the screen.

Scriptwriter Richard Maltby Jr., Broadway lyricist of "Miss Saigon" and director of "Fosse," originally conceived it in 1990 as a musical. When producer David Kirschner insisted the songs be removed, Maltby took the project to the Jim Henson Co., which began developing it as a comedy with the Muppets. After the Henson Co. proposed a number of changes, Maltby offered the movie to Kirschner again -- this time as a straightforward drama. Potter's illustrations come to life, but they don't sing -- or even talk.

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