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 In the movie's first scene with Norman, the unpublished author insists on conditions for printing her first book so that "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" will be affordable for children.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.
After convincing Bruce Beresford to direct the film, Kirschner came up with a nutty way to persuade Cate Blanchett to play Beatrix. He inserted a computer-generated Peter Rabbit into "Elizabeth," Blanchett's 1998 biopic, to show the bunny sympathizing with the distraught queen as she breaks down crying in front of a portrait of her father, Henry VIII. The actress broke out laughing and agreed to take on the role. When Kirschner failed to line up financing, Beresford dropped out and Blanchett was lured away to make "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's 2004 film.
Eventually, Mike Medavoy's Phoenix Pictures became a partner. When Noonan and Zellweger took on the project, the film finally got underway. Zellweger soon coaxed McGregor, her costar in the 2003 movie "Down With Love," to come on board.
To immerse the cast into the period, Noonan staged a two-week Victorian-Edwardian boot camp, enlisting historian Jenny Uglow and etiquette specialist Sue Lefton to drill Zellweger, McGregor and others in geopolitics and manners.
"We practiced bows, greeting social superiors and inferiors, when to touch someone, and what contact was taboo," Noonan said. "It was such a repressed era that raising an eyebrow could be a major statement."
The script concentrates on Beatrix around age 11 and her three-year affair with Norman when she's in her mid-30s. According to Zellweger, "she had a very controlled, regimented upbringing and still she became this magnificently expressive person with a very rich inner life."
In the film, Beatrix's hypercritical mother is a good deal warmer than she was believed to be in real life. Her father, a barrister who spent most of his time at his men's club and was a keen amateur photographer, was far more sympathetic to his daughter's ambitions, though probably not to the extent he's depicted on screen. At one point in the movie, Rupert Potter proudly praises his daughter: "You're an artist, the genuine article."
When a nervous Norman shows up at Beatrix's house to discuss her book, they both realize they've been set up -- the totally inexperienced publisher with the first-time author. No matter. They'll show his skeptical older brothers, partners in the family publishing business, and her dismissive parents what they can accomplish together, producing a phenomenally successful book and ultimately falling in love.
"It was her first teenage crush," Noonan said. "Since she was in her 30s, she was completely consumed by it." When her parents declare their opposition to marrying Norman, objecting that the publisher is beneath them, Beatrix explodes. "Does that mean I'm never to be loved?"
Enveloped in steam clouds billowing from a train, her farewell kiss with Norman, a nod to "Brief Encounter," David Lean's 1945 paean to illicit romance, leaves no doubt that she is indeed to be loved. Then Norman dies unexpectedly. The film doesn't say of what, but in reality, the 37-year-old editor succumbed in August 1905 to lymphatic leukocythemia, a type of leukemia, a month after the marriage proposal.
Noonan had a dilemma on his hands. How do you kill off one of the protagonists in a love story two-thirds of the way through a film and make Beatrix -- and audiences -- happy at the end?
After Norman's death, Beatrix plunges into depression, trying to escape her grief at Hill Top, her Lake District farm. "It's the demands of running the farm that cure her," Noonan said.
That and the company of William Heelis (played by British television actor Lloyd Owen), an outdoorsy solicitor who shares her wry sense of humor. Freed (mostly) from her parents, she's also grown tougher. When a local developer she outbids in a property auction warns Heelis to keep his client in check, Beatrix zings back to the man: "I don't need any lectures; I've had quite enough, thank you."
It doesn't take long for Heelis to propose marriage to this sassy, independent woman. Predictably, her parents oppose it; they view her new beau -- like Norman -- as beneath them. After two years' prodding, Beatrix's aging parents eventually accept the marriage.
"Heelis was much earthier than Norman," said the director. "In many ways, I think she was happier with him than she would have been with Norman, once she had outgrown her adolescent crush."
Married to "Willie" for three decades, until her death in December 1943, Beatrix Heelis dedicated herself to protecting Lake District farms and wilderness, ultimately donating more than 4,300 acres to Britain's National Trust. In the end, she wanted to be remembered as a conservationist -- perhaps even more than for her enduring children's tales.