The Christina Ricci vehicle, Penelope, has been on the shelf for awhile [the film was produced in 2006] – which might make one think it must be a turkey. It’s not.
Penelope [Ricci] has a pig’s snout and folded over piggy ears – the result of a long ago curse on her great-great-great-great grandfather, who fell in love beneath his station and then was forced by his family to marry into their own class. Unfortunately, the lower-class girl’s mother was a witch – who cursed the family in that their first girl would look like a pig. Only one of their own kind could break the curse.
When the family had generations of sons [and only sons], they decided the curse wasn’t real – especially after Jessica Wilhern [Catherine O’Hara] gave birth to a girl. Again, unfortunately, the father wasn’t of the Wilhern line [momma played around with the chauffeur] and then Penelope arrived…
Like a princess in a fairy tale [because that’s what this is – make no mistake] – Rapunzel in her tower [only with pig features instead of long hair – Penelope lives in a mansion in which her room is the size of a small town and is both a place to sleep and a playground. All of which is sweet [but not cloying] until it comes time for her to find the one who could break the curse.
Sadly, Penelope’s posh would-be suitors never get past the pig features to discover the wonderful person she is inside. But thanks to the machinations of a reporter, Lemon [Peter Dinklage], who lost an eye trying to glimpse/photograph the baby Penelope, a financially challenged blueblood is found who will try to get a photo of the girl to restore the reporter’s reputation – and, not incidentally, the reputation of a young lordling [Simon Woods] whose reaction to Penelope was so extreme that he really believes she had fangs and was about to maul him!
The financially challenged blueblood, Max Campion [James McAvoy] does manage to meet Penelope [through a two-way glass] and finds her perfectly charming – and it’s reciprocal. Oddly enough, this is where thinks begin to get weird [in a perfectly charming sort of way].
Mark Palansky directs Penelope like it’s a straightforward modern romantic comedy [which it also is] even though the film’s design is just off enough to suggest the fairy tale aspect of the story. Thus he somewhat otherworldly aspects of Leslie Caveny’s script become completely acceptable to the audience.
Woods’ over-the-top performance as the badly shocked Edward Vanderman Jr. adds a dash of hysteria to the mix – enough so that Ricci’s completely natural reading of Penelope makes her even more sympathetic and likable. As Franklin Wilhern, Richard E. Grant seems the more stable of Penelope’s parents, calmly dealing with his wife’s increasingly daft behavior as she tries to help her daughter find the one man who can remove the curse.
McAvoy’s Max is definitely a low-rent Prince Charming. Indeed, he is so low-rent that Lemon and the young Vanderman have to provide him with a classy jacket [suitably rigged with an awkwardly large looking camera] just to make him presentable enough to get in the door. He’s also something of a problem gambler – which is why he’s bought so cheaply…
Penelope, the movie, is one of the first films produced by Reese Witherspoon] – who also appears in it as Annie, the first friend the runaway Penelope makes in the Cloverdilly pub [a place recommended by Max]. The supporting cast includes such cool [and excellent] contributors as Torchwood’s Burn Gorman and comic Lenny Henry – and is as solid throughout as is necessary to make us buy into a world where a pig-faced girl could unexpectedly achieve celebrity.
This is a gentle fairy tale with much goodwill and class – and the story’s twists are only partially unpredictable. It does find ways to sneak hysterically funny bits into the mix [see: the montage of Penelope’s fleeing suitors – and the countermeasures taken by Jessica; and the twist about the Wilherns’ staff]], but it’s the heart of the story that draws us into the film. Well, that and an unexpected twist vis-à-vis the curse…
Overall, Penelope [both the film and the character] is a small delight that did not deserve to be held back for two years. It is a feel good that has substance – which makes its existence a bit of a fairy tale itself.