Poor Penelope. Born with a pig’s nose as the result of a curse, all of her family’s wealth can’t disguise the fact the first-born daughter of the upper-crust Wilhern clan resembles a pig. Mom Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and dad Franklin (Richard E Grant) love their daughter but in order to shield her from the cruel taunts of children, have kept Penelope (Christina Ricci) pretty much a prisoner in their home. Penelope’s days are spent studying music and art, reading the classics, and dreaming of the world beyond the locked gates of the family’s estate.
But there is hope for our heroine. Max (James McAvoy) arrives at the Wilhern house along with a batch of guys better dressed and seemingly more suitable. Penelope enters the room, men fly out doors and windows, but Max – who was distracted when Penelope made her entrance – stays put. Retreating behind a one-way mirror before Max has another opportunity to see what caused everyone else to bolt from the premises, Penelope engages Max in a lengthy conversation believing he knows about her nose.
Penelope finds herself attracted to the disheveled, witty character and works up the courage, after a few more visits, to talk to him nose to snout. What Penelope doesn’t know is that Max isn’t who she thinks he is and instead is, reluctantly, working for a newspaper reporter (Peter Dinklage) and Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods) – the heir to a fortune who caused a stir by announcing to the public he’d seen a horrible beast.
Christina Ricci shines as the girl born with a face that’s a natural man-repellant. Ricci’s charming and believable, and the pig nose actually looks quite adorable on the actress who’s grown up on camera. Ricci makes Penelope a real person, one that reaches audiences and pulls on our heartstrings. Associating ‘root’ with a character who has a pig’s snout might seem corny, but root for the perky Penelope we do as she comes to terms with the fact that who she is has nothing to do with her physical appearance.
James McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) could quite possibly be one of the hottest actors working today, and even producer Witherspoon admits she was lucky to get him before his career took off. McAvoy’s terrific as a guy who, despite a series of questionable actions, never loses the affection of the audience. Equally terrific are supporting players O’Hara, Grant, Dinklage and Wood. And tackling a minor supporting role, Oscar-winner Witherspoon (Walk the Line) keeps the spotlight on Ricci and never upstages the film’s star.
There’s a definite fairy tale vibe to the entire production, from the set decoration, to costumes, to the way the story unspools. Even the color palette feels lifted off the pages of a children’s fairy tale book. By existing in this alternate sort of universe, Penelope gets away with a lot of storytelling liberties more conventional films would never be able to pull off. This world of curses and pig snouts seems like an interesting place to visit, and director Mark Palansky steers us through it at a brisk pace and without any unnecessary detours. Screenwriter Caveny’s tight script moves things forward quickly, although time is taken at the beginning to lay out enough of a backstory so that we’re never at a loss as to any character’s motivation.
Penelope’s a very sweet, magical film. Not in any way your typical romantic comedy, this nifty fantasy tale of a woman facing extraordinary circumstances and coming into her own is really quite engaging. And the moral of the story, accepting one’s self as is, isn’t a bad idea to be sharing with audiences, either.
Penelope was directed by Mark Palansky and is rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language.
Theatrical Release Date: February 29, 2008