Penelope is a rare hidden gem. It’s quickly become one of my new favorite movies, and there are many reasons why. It has an AMAZING cast: headlining it are Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, Peter Dinklage (!!!), Richard E. Grant, and Simon Woods (who I recognized as Augustus Caesar from HBO’S Rome). And then there are the supporting cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nick Frost, Burn Gorman (WHO is that guy’s agent? he’s in everything lately!). The art direction is reminiscent of Amelie, as everything is colorful, whimsical, and beautiful. I’d like to just disappear into the wardrobe closet with a shopping cart and redo my life with everything that everyone wore.
The story is very light; it’s a modern fairytale about a wealthy family whose pride caused a witch to place a curse on them: their daughter would give birth to a monstrosity. Naturally the family had about ten generations of sons, but finally a girl was born, who was in every other way perfect except for her little piggy nose. Until the girl is loved by one of her own, she’ll bear the pig nose for the rest of her days. Penelope’s mother makes it her life’s mission to break the curse, hiring a full-time husband finder to try and pair Penelope with any blueblood who’ll have her. Hundreds of likely suitors scream in horror and dash off at first sight of here, and herein is one of the movie’s biggest failings.
It was just hard to believe that not only were these guys unable to get past the snout thing, but that they ran in HORROR from her. There’s so much else going on! She’s gorgeous! That SKIN! The shoes! THE GIANT PILE OF MONEY THAT COMES WITH HER FAMILY NAME. But the film is making a point about superficiality, so there’s that.
Simon Woods’ character, Edward, is the latest in a long line of matchmaking failures, and his rantings about a hideous pig monster catch the ear of Peter Dinklage’s character, Lemon. Lemon is a reporter who lost his eye trying to catch a picture of the infamous pig-nosed baby years before, and has been trying to get material for a story on her ever since.
I have to say how much I like Dinklage in this film. His character has an interesting arc, for one thing: since he’s never seen Penelope, he only has secondhand accounts to go by. When he finally sees her picture, he’s astounded by how very UN-monstrous she is, or that she could think of herself as such at all. There’s a connection there; he, as a little person, has to field curiosity and attention about his appearance wherever he goes. If this were a different kind of movie, he might have a moment of resentment. After all, Penelope had the benefit of a VERY wealthy upbringing where she was able to control her surroundings entirely. He has a job, and no walls between himself and others. He has nowhere to hide. But this film is definitely light entertainment, so rather than resentment, he regrets the story he tried to make out of her appearance.
At long last, a guy appears on the horizon that captures Penelope’s interest, and doesn’t seem put off by her situation. James McAvoy plays the impossibly handsome, self-effacing, and down-to-earth gambler that Edward and Lemon set up as a possible match for Penelope, and hide a camera in his jacket so he can get a shot of her. Of course he finds her fascinating instead, and when she finally does appear he’s less horrified than saddened by the fact that he can’t be involved with her as he’s not really a blueblood.
I also have to admit that I forgot how good-looking James McAvoy is – the movie I most associate him with is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the shoe was on the other foot and he played Mr. Tumnus the faun, complete with hooves, horns, and a goat nose. In Penelope he’s totally the guy you thought you’d fall for in college: he has a cool, Flashdance-y loft, plays piano, and wears engineer boots and cool hats while being self-effacing and kind. Of course he’s tough and hardened on the outside but has a warm gooey center, but that’s the kind of character this type of movie would need.
Penelope has its drawbacks: an odd, rambling plot that is more challenging than the usual rom-com stuff is the most noticeable thing; a definite disconnect from reality in that all the sets and wardrobe are absolutely beautiful and luxe; sometimes unsubtle performances (Simon Woods doing comedy is a treat, after his icy performance in Rome).
But it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s message–that you must love and accept yourself most of all– is the strongest thing it has going for it, and I kind of wish they’d show movies like this instead of ‘This is what happens to your body’ in 5th grade. Ricci’s performance is delightful, and she looks absolutely radiant the whole time, even with the pig nose. All the British actors do American accents for some reason, and Richard E. Grant’s American accent is a TREAT. And as I mentioned, every inch of the film has been created to look beautiful, so it’s a lot of lovely eyecandy as well.
Penelope is available on Instant Watch.