4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
In the screening I attended for “Penelope,” a large man in the front of the theater was snoring — breathing heavily through his nose and snorting like a pig. During any other film, this distraction would have been dreadfully annoying. Here, it was perfect, because this delightful modern fairy tale is about a young girl cursed with a snout in the middle of her face.
Long ago (as we learn from a whimsically animated backstory), one of Penelope Wilhern’s aristocratic ancestors had an adulterous affair with the wrong servant girl. When the affair went down the tubes, the girl’s literal witch of a mother cast a spell on the Wilhern lineage, ensuring that the next female born to the blue-blooded family would feel the pain of being different and inferior. The only way to break the curse would be if a fellow aristocrat looked past those differences and loved the girl for who she was underneath. Jump forward a handful of generations, and Penelope is that unfortunate heiress, living in hiding in a modern-day, London-esque town and waiting for her prince to come.
Motivated by the promise of a hefty dowry in return for their marriage proposal, potential suitors line up outside the Wilherns’ swanky estate every day (or, at least, what appears to be every day) to meet Penelope, and hopefully, win her affections. What usually happens when they see the pig-faced girl is a swan dive out of a window, or a screaming charge out of the door, both of which are remedied by the running shoe-clad butler who’s paid to keep Penelope’s secret under wraps. That secret is kept, as is the breaking of the curse prompted, with far more vigor by Penelope’s mother Jessica than by Penelope herself. Since Penelope’s birth, Jessica has been ashamed of and hell-bent on fixing her daughter’s appearance — the obvious solution of surgery was out from the get-go, since the snout runs along a major, inoperable artery — and seems to be driven by little else. And, like all villainous mothers of the cinema, she claims to be doing it all for her daughter’s own good.
Penelope is played by Christina Ricci, in what might be the oft-dark actress’ brightest role to date. A far cry from her sex-crazed character in last year’s “Black Snake Moan,” her titular heroine has a childlike charm that’s easy to love. We first meet her as her gentlemen callers do: slowly, in shadow, just a voice, and then…the big reveal (which thankfully doesn’t take too long). Yet our reaction is not one of utter horror, not only because we know what to expect, but because Ricci’s angelic face nearly eclipses the major flaw at its center. Catherine O’Hara plays Jessica, proving again why she’s one of the most gifted comedic actresses in the business. She knows precisely the right pitch to attach to every line delivery, making each one over-the-top hilarious and believable at the same time.
Penelope and Jessica’s monotonous everyday is thrown into a tizzy with the arrival of Max, a mole hired by a vengeful journalist (“The Station Agent’s” Peter Dinklage) and a scorned ex-suitor (”Pride & Prejudice’s” Simon Woods) to snap an incriminating photo of the girl. Max (who may or may not be who he appears), naturally develops genuine feelings for Penelope, but the movie wisely doesn’t take the obvious next step. Rather than go the cliché route of “you love me only because there’s something in it for you”, it uses the revelation of Max’s trickery as a tool to cultivate Penelope’s independence, which gets an ample chance to grow when she runs away from home. The combined pursuits of Jessica and the journalist make headlines, turning Penelope into an overnight sensation. She captures the attention of the nation and recaptures the attention of Max, who’s still regretting his dishonesty.
Max is played by James McAvoy, a fresh young actor who does more work with his eyes than some of his peers do with their entire bodies. I found him even more effective here than in the Oscar-nominated “Atonement,” for which his efforts rightfully earned bundles of praise. He brings to “Penelope” an added air of sophistication, which is but one of its many virtues. By the time the noble message of being and accepting oneself is brought to the table, it’s simply an added bonus, because the movie has already worked its magic. Premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival by Type A Productions (a company owned by Reese Witherspoon, who also gives a spirited supporting performance in the film), “Penelope” has been at a distribution standstill for nearly two years. It’s finally making its debut in the U.S. and abroad, and proves itself to have been worth the wait. The cast and the sweet story make it a dream of a ride, one that may just warrant repeated go-rounds.