by HELEN GEIB
Penelope is about a young woman from a cursed family who is born with a pig’s snout for a nose. It is an original story patterned after traditional fairy tales. The telling has a modern inflection, but the contemporaneity does not extend to laughing at its genre or itself and the film is refreshingly free of both irony and parody. This is a very appealing and enjoyable film that reaffirms the continued vitality of the old forms.
The film’s traditionalism makes a plot summary unnecessary. The story proceeds as is to be expected from a fairy tale with that premise, and is highly satisfactory in its development and conclusion. For a project like Penelope, success or failure depends less on the plot than on its execution. Penelope succeeds in characterization and performance and in the production design of the story’s not quite real, not quite fantastical setting. That success begins with the casting, which is particularly well-attuned to the character types who inhabit a fairy tale world.
Christina Ricci gives a lovely performance in the title role. Penelope is a thoroughly charming heroine. Intelligent, spirited, and sympathetic, it’s a pleasure to spend 90 minutes in her company. Her parents are played by Catherine O’Hara and Richard E. Grant and James McAvoy is her romantic interest. The part of the heroine’s trusted servant and confidante is modernized to “best friend” and played by Reese Witherspoon. The most original role is a tabloid reporter obsessed with the pig nose girl. I’m happy to report it’s one of the largest supporting parts, both because the reporter is a great character and because he’s played by Peter Dinklage, fast becoming one of those actors whose presence alone is almost enough to recommend a film. British character actors fill out the cast (including Lenny Henry in a small, but colorful bit, and it always makes me happy to see him).
The physical world of the film is a skewed reality. It’s a present day setting, yet the production design evokes between the wars London. That’s especially true of Penelope’s wardrobe and her family’s “castle”, but also extends to other sets and flavors the costumes designs. The look of the film is an amalgam of past and present colored by cinematic and literary fictions. It’s an ethos that extends to the performances, a cheerful blend of English and American accents and manners. The movie is composed of anachronisms that give rise to a pleasurable anticipation to see what the next scene will bring.
One of those anachronisms is that despite the period and fantasy feel of the visuals, the performance style is entirely modern and realistic; the acting never conveys the sense that this is a work of historical fiction or fantasy. While that aspect of the film is enjoyable in itself, I suspect the filmmakers’ primary motivation was the desire to make a film easily accessible to children and teenagers.
I have described the film as a fairy tale, but it can also be categorized as a fable teaching the unassailable and timeless moral lesson that who we are on the inside is more important than what we look like. The marketing for the film has targeted ‘tweener girls and their mothers, and that lesson certainly is of particular relevance to impressionable girls in our beauty driven culture. However, I hope that the film’s audience will not be limited to that demographic. The message is universal and Penelope is a film of universal appeal.
3 1/2 stars