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Okay, who was the genius that decided to push Penelope back two years? Unfortunately, whenever one hears about a movie release date being pushed back, the connotation is that there’s something wrong with the film. Not so with Penelope. Originally set for a 2006 release, I’ve no idea what the reason was for the delay, but it was worth the wait and pushing aside any preconceived notions about this delightful film.

Penelope is the recipient of some seriously bad karma visited on her wealthy family by the actions of an uncaring ancestor who played the wrong witch’s daughter dirty. As a result, it is foretold that the first born female child of the Wilhern family will be graced with the face of a pig and only when she finds someone “of her own kind” to love her, will the curse be broken. After an incredibly long string of Wilhern sons, Franklin and Jessica give birth to Penelope, whose porcine snout and floppy ears have her mother shrieking in despair, especially when Penelope’s facial accoutrements are the kind that cannot be wished away by the plastic surgeon. Keeping her daughter out of the eye of the scoop-hungry paparazzi isn’t easy either, so the Wilherns decide to fake their baby girl’s death and lock her in a wing of their palatial mansion. Penelope, relying herself for her own amusements and education, grows into an intelligent, artistic young woman with a definite sense of style and a harshly realistic sense of her deformity. However, none of that is going to stand in the way of Penelope’s mother: Mrs. Wilhern tires out a professional matchmaker in her quest to find a blueblood for Penelope; a montage of young men flying out of a mansion window gives the audience an idea of the success of that endeavour. Penelope is as resigned to her loneliness as her mother is determined to find a husband to break the curse. It is with the advent of Max, a free-spirited gambler that someone finally gets to know Penelope, albeit through the two-way mirror that separates her from human interaction. On undercover assignment on behalf of a paparazzo, Max infiltrates the Wilhern house and Penelope’s own strong defenses with an affable charm and wit. Penelope begins to dream of a normal existence with Max as her guide. When Max’s eventual letdown devastates her, Penelope rushes headlong into the world she’s been kept apart from for so long, hiding her face, burka-like under a fetching scarf. Relying on herself for the first time, Penelope discovers good friends, follows her interests and makes decisions about the way she intends to live her life.

It’s a sweet, mini-feminist fable that could have easily been made cloying if not for the deft work of its excellent cast. Christina Ricci is as endearing as I’ve seen her as the cursed, snout-nosed heiress, giving the innocent Penelope a natural intelligence and determined will. The pig nose isn’t nearly as off-putting as it could be and combined with Ricci’s gorgeous mane of long curls, limpid eyes and fabulous wardrobe, made it difficult to believe there wasn’t one blueblood bachelor who could get past the relatively slight deformity. James McAvoy’s would-be con man is the perfect foil for Penelope, his infectious joie de vivre pulling the lonely girl out of her opulent shell. McAvoy (- or MmmcAvoy as he’s known round the Temple), disheveled and shaggy-haired, is at his unlikely heartthrob best and delivers his emotional scenes with such certainty you will believe a that man loves a pig! - Or a pig-girl …or a girl with a slightly piggish face. We render special praise unto the force of nature known as Catherine O’Hara. She practically walks off with the entire film as Penelope’s despairing, histrionic mother, who, in her excesses of overprotection veers comically close to Mommie Dearest territory. The infallible Richard E. Grant is terrific opposite O’Hara as Penelope’s adoring, realist dad; his low-key level-headedness manages to balance the manic hysteria of his overbearing wife. I would love for Christopher Guest to recruit Grant for his next project because I wanted to see much more of Grant and O’Hara’s hilarious chemistry. Every scene the two are in injects the proceedings with a lovely shot of adrenaline. There is further support from producer Reese Witherspoon as a spunky bike messenger who shows her new friend “Scarfy” the ropes, Peter Dinklage as the single-minded paparazzo and Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost in a cameo as Max’s fellow wastrel.

Director Mark Palansky makes his feature debut with Penelope and his good fortune is in having such an incredible cast shoring up the occasionally uneven moments. Once Penelope runs off on her own things wind down, the sequences of Penelope’s venture into the outside world just don’t snap the way any of the scenes with her parents or with Max through the two-way mirror do. It doesn’t help either that the film’s big climax is a big “Huh?” moment, an unnecessarily ham-fisted attempt to give the fable a moral. It doesn’t make much sense within the film’s own set-up of the curse’s rules or Penelope’s own strong character. There is an odd mélange of some very well-known settings meant to serve as non-locations; Penelope runs out of her house, clearly in the English countryside and opens her gate directly on to…Times Square? Then she turns a corner and is at a night fete on the river Thames. Well, that explains the variety of accents - sometimes from the same actor. I supposed the mix of locations was meant to emphasise the fantasy feeling of the film by making take place in no particular city, but perhaps some lesser photographed areas might have been advisable. Still, what stands out in Penelope is watching the main cast really give their all and seeming to enjoy themselves - indeed carrying the audience through of the film’s minor iniquities and giving us a delightful myth. Besides advocating self-esteem, Penelope serves up a wry comment on the perception of beauty and its manipulation in the media. Watching Penelope beat the press at their own game and accept herself for who she is, snout and all, is a wonderful lesson for anybody.

It took two years to do it, but I’m glad I had the chance to enjoy this amazing cast in this charming modern fairy tale. Catch it while you can.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

Feb 26th 2008

 

 

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