The story begins with Beatrix Potter nervously packing her portfolio and narrating that she is a London spinster, and that her ambition to become a children's author meets with wide disapproval. She and her chaperone, Miss Wiggin, visit the publishing house of Harold and Fruing Warne, who decide to publish her book. Beatrix is thrilled and returns home, taking a drive through the parks to celebrate first. However, it is revealed the Warne brothers think her book is ridiculous and will no doubt be a failure. The only reason they agreed to publish it is because they promised their younger brother, Norman, a project.
When Norman Warne visits Beatrix, they make decisions about her book regarding size, colour and price. Norman admits he has never done anything like this before but has given her book a great deal of thought. Beatrix realises what Norman's brothers have done regarding him and her, but they become determined to prove them wrong. Norman takes Beatrix to the printer, and she has her drawings reproduced and copies of her book sold. Thrilled, Beatrix and Norman visit the Warne family, where Beatrix meets the wheelchair-bound but lovely Mrs. Warne, and Norman's sister, Amelia, nicknamed "Millie". Millie has decided that she and Beatrix are going to be friends and is overjoyed that Beatrix is a spinster, as is Millie, who believes men to be nothing but bores. The family befriends Beatrix, yet Helen Potter, Beatrix's social-climbing mother, is unhappy about her daughter spending time in the company of 'tradesmen'.
When she returns home, Beatrix and Helen bicker about Beatrix's stubborn decision not to marry. Beatrix reminds her mother of the book she wrote, and her mother retorts she believes the venture will fail. However, the book sales are very successful and copies are displayed in many store windows. Norman encourages Beatrix to submit other stories for publication. Even Beatrix's father, Rupert, buys a copy of one of her books after hearing how his friends at the Reform Club were buying them. Encouraged by this success and her father's support, Beatrix invites Norman and Millie to her family's Christmas party, despite her mother's misgivings. At the party everyone enjoys themselves and Beatrix shows Norman a story she is writing especially for him, "The Rabbits' Christmas Party". She shows him a drawing from the story and shows him her studio where she writes and draws. Miss Wiggin falls asleep from too much brandy (a generous portion of which had been added to her coffee cup by Norman), and Norman plucks up the courage to propose to Beatrix. Mrs. Potter interrupts before Beatrix can reply, and they join the other guests in the drawing room. Beatrix confides in Millie about Norman proposing, and Millie encourages her to say yes. Beatrix then tells the guests of the stories she writes and they are delighted and amused. Mrs. Potter, however, can not see what all the fuss is about. As the guests leave, Beatrix whispers her agreement to marry Norman, who is overjoyed.
Norman visits Rupert Potter at his club to ask his consent, and is dismissed within minutes. At the Potter household, Beatrix and her parents argue about her decision to marry Norman. Beatrix is adamant and will not be dissuaded. Mrs. Potter tells her no Potter can marry into trade, but Beatrix reminds her that her grandfathers were both tradesmen. When Mrs. Potter threatens to cut her daughter off, Beatrix reminds them of her brother, Bertram, who married a wine merchant's daughter and was not disowned. She states she can survive on her own with her books. Mr. Potter attempts to reason with his daughter, but she tells him she wants to be loved and not simply marry someone because he can provide for her.
Beatrix inquires with the bank about her royalty earnings, wondering if she would perhaps someday be able to buy a house in the country. She is amazed and delighted to learn that her book sales have made her wealthy enough to buy several estates and a house in town if she wishes. When she returns home her parents offer a proposition: that Beatrix keep her engagement to Norman a secret and holiday with them in the Lake District for the summer. If she still wishes to marry him at the end of the summer, they agree that they will not object to the marriage. Beatrix agrees to the proposition and is quite convinced that she will not change her mind, telling her parents to prepare for an October wedding.
Norman and Beatrix kiss each other goodbye at the railway station and write many letters during their time apart, until one day a letter arrives from his sister Millie, informing her that Norman is ill. Beatrix travels back to London only to find that Norman has died. Overcome with grief, Beatrix shuts herself up in her room. She turns to her drawing, but discovers that her characters disappear off the page. Millie comes to visit and comfort her, and Beatrix decides she must leave the house.
Beatrix buys a farm in the country in the Lake District and moves there to resume her work. She hires a farmhand to run the farm and finds comfort in her surroundings. With the help of her solicitor, William Heelis, she outbids developers at auctions and buys many other farms and land in the area to preserve nature. In captions, it is explained that eight years after moving to the Lake District she marries William (to her mother's disapproval) and the land she purchased eventually forms part of the Lake District National Park in North West England.Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter
Lucy Boynton as Young Beatrix
Ewan McGregor as Norman Warne
Emily Watson as Millie Warne
Barbara Flynn as Helen Potter
Bill Paterson as Rupert Potter
Lloyd Owen as William Heelis
Justin McDonald as Young William
Anton Lesser as Harold Warne
David Bamber as Fruing Warne
Phyllida Law as Mrs. Louisa Warne
Judith Barker as Hilda
Lynn Farleigh as Lady Sybil
John Woodvine as Sir Nigel
Jane How as Lady Armitage
Geoffrey Beevers as Mr. Copperthwaite
Clare Clifford as Mrs. Haddon-Bell
The film was director Chris Noonan's first in 10 years (since he made Babe), having waited for many years until he finally found a script that inspired him. Cate Blanchett, who originally suggested Noonan for the role of director, was at one point set to star in the film but apologetically left the project when one of her other films was green-lighted before this one. Zellweger ended up becoming an executive producer on the film because she was dissatisfied with the script and wanted to get more involved. The film was first brought to Ewan McGregor's attention by Zellweger, who had kept in contact with him after collaborating on Down with Love.
McGregor described the film as having a somewhat similar appeal as that film, and noted that he was familiar with Beatrix Potter's illustrations and stories, which he said he reads to his children. To prepare for the role, McGregor studied photographs of Norman Warne and visited the modern-day Warne publishing house. Zellweger read actual letters between Beatrix Potter and Norman Warne and Millie to prepare for the role, but had difficulty with the accent, which she said was very different from Bridget Jones'.
As there were no records of Beatrix Potter's speaking voice, they had to guess; ultimately the voice was softened so as not to irritate contemporary audiences with the tight, high voice a woman of Beatrix Potter's standing at that time may have had. Zellweger said that she had read a few of Beatrix Potter's stories growing up, but that she had never known anything about the woman herself. Noonan said that when growing up he had never read Beatrix Potter's stories, and that, "I was aware of her because of all that crockery with her characters on it."
The film used animated versions of Beatrix Potter's characters and illustrations, which were composited into the live-action shots. According to Chris Knott (who had previously worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit), VFX supervisor on the film for Passion Pictures, they were given access to collections of Potter's original work to help them recreate it for the animations. Noonan said that it was hard to find anyone who still did cel animation, but did end up finding such a person in Alyson Hamilton, who already had a great deal of appreciation for Potter's work. Costumes for the film were designed by Academy Award winner Anthony Powell. The score for the film was composed by Nigel Westlake (who had previously worked with Noonan on Babe) although Rachel Portman was brought in to record some of the music for the Lake District scenes. Westlake was asked by Noonan during filming to come up with a waltz-like tune for some of their lyrics, and, with the collaboration of Mike Batt and Katie Melua, this same song was also turned into a pop song used in the end credits of the film.
The film received positive reviews. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes ranks the film with a 66% rating, based on 126 reviews. The critics' consensus is that it is a "charming biopic that maintains its sweetness even in sadder moments."When You Taught Me How to Dance - Performed by Katie Melua
Let Me Teach You How to Dance - Performed by Ewan McGregor
After Norman dies, his sister describes his symptoms as mainly having consisted of coughing. He actually died of lymphoid leukaemia, which typically does not cause coughing.
No mention is made of her detailed studies of fungi and her desire for a career as a mycologist.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit was privately published before being taken up by F. Warne. The film makes much of the first printing of the book, but wrongly associates this with Warne.
The film starts in 1902, in which time Beatrix states that she is "an unmarried woman of 32", but in reality she would have been either 35 or 36 depending on what month it was. She was born in 1866.
A sequence in the film shows Jemima Puddleduck as one of the early publications; this was actually published in 1908, after the period shown in the film ends.