|Directed by||:||Will Gluck||Produced by||:||Will Gluck||Screenplay by||:||Will Gluck, Rob Lieber||Based on||:||Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter||Starring||:||Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley||Cinematography||:||Peter Menzies Jr.||Production company||:||Columbia Pictures|
Romanticism v realism: Peter Rabbit digs up cinema’s conflicted relationship with the country
Following God’s Own Country, The Levelling, and The Goob, Clio Barnard’s new Yorkshire farming drama Dark River is the latest in a recent run of British movies giving us the hard truth about modern rural life. Here, the English countryside is a landscape of mud, mess, junk and – above all – hard work. It is a place of hardship, secrets and family conflict, where preparation for the role could involve killing and gutting a rabbit. It is also a place where you’re as likely to hear a Romanian accent as a Yorkshire one.
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By contrast, in Peter Rabbit – which arrives in US cinemas this week (16 Mar in the UK) – the English countryside is pleasant, green and very clean. The sun is always shining, everything is in full bloom, and there’s not a speck of mud to be seen. And nobody has any work to do: heroine Rose Byrne just paints all day in her conservatory, while hero Domhnall Gleeson inherits a grand old country house with fully stocked vegetable patch.
Of course, Dark River is a grownup drama and Peter Rabbit a children’s movie, but the difference in their depictions of the same landscape is jarring. You could also call it a division between realism and romanticism. Or perhaps one is for domestic consumption and the other for the export market. But, judging by these movies, the gap between the fantasy and the reality is widening. In fact, you could boil it down to a tale of two bunnies: with his little blue jacket and pristine fur, James Corden’s Peter Rabbit is as adorably cute as CGI can muster. Meanwhile, Dark River’s heroine unsentimentally skins and guts a dead rabbit for her supper. Several sheep are also seen off over the course of the film - one with a bolt gun, another ravaged by a dog. That’s the real countryside for you.
It is not just a gap between genres, either. You will also see Peter Rabbit’s chocolate-box England in our myriad costume dramas: 90% of which are filmed in summer at well-maintained heritage estates. You can even kill two birds with one stone with a literary biopic such as Goodbye Christopher Robin or Miss Potter. Anything that might shatter the illusion, or confuse the international market, is airbrushed out of these movies: pylons, industrial pig farms, filth, death. You won’t even hear a northern accent in Peter Rabbit, which was actually filmed in Australia.
It does not have to be a case of either/or, though. The prevailing bunny movie of my 1970s childhood was the animated Watership Down, whose depiction of English life mixed sunlit meadows and Bright Eyes with death, violence, habitat destruction and myxomatosis. In its way, it was more hardcore than Dark River Beatrix Potter wasn’t squeamish, either. She bred sheep. She caught, killed and dissected animals, the better to anthropomorphise them in her books. Legend has it, she even butchered a bunny – the original Peter? – and studied its organs. If you want to experience the real English countryside, she realised, you’ve got to get your hands dirty.