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Not always the proper lady

Emily Watson threw herself into the role of `Miss Potter's' socially rebellious friend Millie.

January 10, 2007|Christina Talcott | The Washington Post

For a woman who describes herself as a character actor, Emily Watson's role in the new "Miss Potter" is a character, to be sure. The indie-queen actress -- who was nominated for Oscars in 1997 for Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" and in 1999 for "Hilary and Jackie" -- plays the fiery, impulsive Millie Warne, a bright neon sign in the gaslight salons of Victorian London, where the unmarried woman finds a friend in author Beatrix Potter. Renee Zellweger plays the writer in director Chris Noonan's first film since his 1995 hit, "Babe."

A biopic with animated watercolor animals, "Miss Potter" begins when a company agrees to publish Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." Potter and novice publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) fall in love, and their tragic affair is the film's focus, but it is Norman's sister Millie who becomes Potter's lifelong friend and confidant.

"Millie and Beatrix corresponded for the rest of their lives," Watson says, "and their letters were really sweet. They're like phone calls almost. They're like, 'Have you read this recipe, and do you know when to prune the roses?' They're very chatty and domestic."

Yet Millie was far from a shrinking violet, as Watson discovered through research for the role. The actress saw Millie's spark in an image she found in the Warne company's Potter archive. "There's a wonderful photograph of Millie," Watson says. "She's on a bicycle, and she's wearing a boater, and she's with her five brothers, and they're all on bicycles together, sort of leaning, hands outstretched, and she looks really quite fun."

But she's also swimming upstream in her societal role, decrying the bondage of marriage whenever she can. In Richard Maltby Jr.'s script, Watson says, Millie "could have been a bit lecturing, maybe, but I just thought I'll talk quickly and have fun with it."

Her playfulness contrasted with the stark options for women at the time. Watson says: "You married someone, and you kept a house for them, and you raised the kids, and that was that. Women didn't have the opportunities we have now. It's very difficult to get our heads around it." Watson herself has a husband and a 14-month-old daughter, and she managed to limit her time on the set to be with her child.

Noonan says he was surprised by the sexist realities of the era as reflected in Maltby's screenplay. "I thought I knew Beatrix Potter," he says. "But when I read the script, I was amazed that I knew nothing at all of her life.... If she had been a male writer and had had this kind of dramatic life story and had had such a range of achievements in her life, I would imagine that we would all know that story. It would be part of what we know about literature."

Those achievements include donating 4,000 acres in England's Lake District to the National Trust, the British heritage group, including 58 farms Potter bought to save from development. Noonan says, "That sort of individual conservation -- I suppose there are examples in the modern world -- but it was such a pioneering thing to do."

And then there were the fungi: "She developed a theory of how mushrooms and other fungi reproduced, which she presented to the main scientific organization in Britain at the turn of the century, and her paper was rejected because she was a woman," Noonan says. In 1997, Noonan says, the Linnaean Society "issued a posthumous apology to her because it was groundbreaking research, and they said they erred; they made a mistake."

Screenwriter Maltby had whittled down those aspects of Potter's life, focusing the story on her relationship with Norman, with Millie figuring prominently. Noonan says: "My feeling is, with a life as complex as this, you're translating a whole lot of information into a popular medium, and you have to say, 'What is the core of this that people will really relate to?' ... The central story of her life, from a popular, relatable point of view, was this tragic love affair." He adds bluntly, "The rest of it is very fascinating and interesting, but I believe in films that are reasonably short."

That comment reflects something at the core of Noonan's work, as well as Potter's. Watson says about the director: "He's got a very interesting sensibility. You look at 'Babe'; the tone of it is very light and dark and weird and funny.... You trust somebody like that with a film like this."

Noonan says: "There's a lot of darkness to 'Babe.' When I think about it, to open the film with your main character's mother being carted off to be slaughtered is not a cutesy way of opening a film for kids. But nobody complained that it was too dark or horrific. I think people just respond to it because it's the real world."

Likewise, Noonan says: "I think the reason for [Potter's] popularity over 100 years is because her stories tell life like it is. There's a story ['The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck'] that includes a duck and a fox. The reality is that foxes eat ducks, and that is in her story. There's also the reality that humans eat rabbits, and there's a reference to Peter Rabbit's father being eaten by Farmer McGregor in her story. She didn't sort of dress it up in" -- he pauses -- "well, she dressed her characters up in human clothes, but she didn't dress the world that she presented up in romanticized, untrue notions of what the world was like. She was much more upfront about the world."

Watson agrees: "I think that's why [her stories] appeal to children, because they're slightly scary and weird; they're not patronizing. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there. It ain't all fluffy bunnies, know what I mean?"

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