Penelope (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One could be forgiven for approaching Penelope with a certain amount of skepticism. It has two points against it - not only is it opening in the middle of one of the bleakest cinematic seasons but it has sat on the shelf for nearly two years since wrapping production in 2006. Normally, that's not a good sign. Fortunately, however, Penelope is not undone (at least not entirely) by either of these factors. While not a cinematic classic, it delivers pretty much what could reasonably be expected from a movie that opens with the caption "Once upon a time?" It's not the best of modern fairy tales but it's sincere and Christina Ricci's earnest and vulnerable performance touches the heart. Penelope is flawed but not irredeemably so.

Penelope (Christina Ricci) is the 25-year old victim of a curse. She's a normal young woman in every way except her face, which is adorned with the snout and ears of a pig. The provisions of the curse indicate that it can be lifted only when she finds one who loves her faithfully. Unfortunately for Penelope, suitors intrigued by her attractive dowry flee in horror when they see her face. So she sits behind a one-way mirror and talks to them, hoping to make a connection that never develops. Penelope is lonely and losing hope when Max (James McAvoy) shows up on the other side of that mirror. They talk and find common ground, but Max isn't what he seems to be. He's a con man working for newsman Lemon (Peter Dinklage) and one of Penelope's former would-be fianc?s (Simon Woods). Lemon wants a photograph of the woman with the pig's face and has paid Max handsomely to get it. But things go awry when Max begins to feel sympathy for the isolated young woman. When he finally sees her face, he is startled but doesn't run away. Instead, the expression she observes on his features, one that convinces her she can never have a normal relationship, causes her to flee - not only away from Max but eventually away from her home and the sheltered life she has lived there with her mother (Catherine O'Hara) and her father (Richard E. Grant). She enters the real world without any conception of how hostile it can be. Fortunately, she finds a friend in the person of Annie (Reese Witherspoon), who doesn't mind that Penelope always wears a scarf around the lower portion of her face.

Penelope clearly does not take place in the real world as we know it. Although the city is not identified, it's a London analog where the accent percentage is roughly half-and-half American and British. Penelope is regarded as so hideous that men literally throw themselves through second story windows to escape her presence yet, even with the prosthetic snout, Christina Ricci retains her inherent if unconventional attractiveness. However, since it's a fairy tale, it's easy to set these things aside. Viewers are encouraged to imagine that this woman looks like the Elephant Man and it would take someone of real character to look behind the (not so) ugly exterior.

The film's first half is substantially stronger than the second half. There's real poignancy in Penelope's situation. She has no friends. She's not allowed out of the house because her mother is afraid of the reception she would get. She longs to do simple things like go to a pub and have a beer, and she yearns for a man who will love her for who she is, not for what she looks like. Every rejection stings her, deepening her sense of self-loathing and making her cynical about ever meeting someone who can look beyond her snout. Meanwhile, there's a palpable sense of irony that Lemon the dwarf has become obsessed about photographing a misfit in a society where he is anything but "normal."

Unfortunately, once Penelope gets out on the streets and allows herself to be "unveiled," the film's focus begins to fragment. It offers obvious social commentary and weaves together a few too many subplots. Penelope's nicely modulated character strays close to a caricature as she loses some of the three dimensionality that makes her so interesting early in the film. Throw-away secondary characters like Annie come and go without any real purpose and the storyline enters an expressway to a pre-determined conclusion.

Like many fairy tales, this one is allegorical and offers a clear message to girls who have body image issues. The themes are in the same vein as Beauty and the Beast and Shrek, albeit without the animation. The problem with the movie's closing act is that it wants to do more than merely italicize the moral - it wants to provide hearts and flowers and candy, and it all becomes too much. Not only does it detract from the central idea but it lessens the "reality" of Penelope. A character who begins with vibrancy and color becomes very ordinary by the end, and that's a little sad.

Watching Christina Ricci here and recognizing that her next role would be Black Snake Moan, I found myself impressed by her versatility. It seems that she rarely gets the credit she deserves; she always plays interesting characters and develops them into individuals even when the script is lacking. James McAvoy, who made this film before he became internationally known, is effective but not memorable as the con artist with a heart of gold. Catherine O'Hara, who is more at home in broad comedies, has a tendency to go too far over the top. Reese Witherspoon, whose company produced the film, is on hand merely to add a little "star power." Her role, like her performance, is forgettable.

Much as I would like to give Penelope unreserved praise, I can't stretch my lukewarm approbation that far. This is an uneven production. It will appeal most strongly to pre-teen and early teenage girls although there's enough enchantment for other demographics to discover a diversion. Fans of the TV series Pushing Daisies may find echoes of that series here, although Penelope is more restrained in its comedic and satiric elements, keeping them in the background (except in certain scenes with O'Hara). Boiled to its essence, Penelope is Beauty and the Beast with the twist that in this telling, both Beauty and the Beast are aspects of the same person.

Penelope (United States, 2006)

Director: Mark Palansky
Cast: Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Dinklage, Richard E. Grant, Simon Woods
Screenplay: Leslie Caveny
Cinematography: Michel Amathieu
Music: Joby Talbot
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-29
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1