Mark Palansky’s Penelope—which bears the onus of having been sitting on a shelf since its Toronto Film Festival premiere in 2006—is not really a good movie. A variety of factors—mostly bad, or just weird, choices—conspire against it at every turn. It is, however, a film of some ragged charm—and one in which there’s nearly always something cool to look at in terms of design and filmmaking style. And that’s more than a lot of movies can claim.
As befits its fairy-tale approach, the story is a simple one. Generations ago, a member of the upper-crust Wilhern family did sport madly with a servant and then promptly dumped her in favor of someone of his own class. The servant took this badly and threw herself off a cliff, whereupon her mother—who by chance was also the local witch—cursed the Wilhern family, vowing that the next female child of the illustrious family would have the face of a pig. As luck (and the screenplay) would have it, a line of boys ensued, followed by a normal girl, which indicated the curse was just so much twaddle. What no one realized (well, no one who was talking) was that the girl’s real father wasn’t exactly a member of the Wilhern family.
So, when Franklin (Richard E. Grant) and Jessica Wilhern (Catherine O’Hara) produce Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci), the curse comes home to roost. Of course, like all such things, this curse can be lifted as soon as the afflicted child finds love “from one of her own kind.” That’s a trickier proposition than it might at first seem, and the mother’s first reaction is to fake Penelope’s death and have her “body” cremated, while keeping the child in a secret room in the house. As soon as Penelope reaches marriageable age, mom brings on the suitors for her secret daughter—all of whom take one look at Penelope’s porcine proboscis and throw themselves out (or even through) the window. In order to keep this a secret, the potential suitors are then captured and forced to sign a confidentiality agreement—an arrangement that works well enough until one, Edward Vanderman Jr. (Simon Woods, Pride and Prejudice), gets away and starts telling an exaggerated tale of a snout-nosed horror with fangs who was bent on devouring him.
The story catches the interest of a dubious journalist, Lemon (Peter Dinklage), who lost an eye and damaged his career in pursuit of the infant Penelope, and would like nothing so much as the truth that will vindicate him. In an effort to get a picture of this supposed monster, Lemon enlists the aid of a fellow he believes to be an impoverished blue blood, Max Campion (James McAvoy). No surprises where this is going to lead, though it gets there in a pleasant enough manner.
So what goes wrong? Well, for starters, the film isn’t about to make its leading lady all that horrible, so Ricci is outfitted (not always convincingly) with a cute little pig nose that would at worst be disconcerting. The idea that anyone would take one look and run screaming in terror is ridiculous. (She’s also depicted with floppy pig ears, but the screenplay makes no mention of this cosmetic impediment.) Indeed, once Penelope is freed from her curse, it’s almost as big of a shock as when the marvelous Beast in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) turns into Jean Marais’ candy-box illustration prince. In other words, you kind of miss the snout. It’s not a bad look for Ricci.
In some ways the movie’s geographical peculiarity is even worse—or at least more distracting. The film is very obviously shot in England. There’s never any question of this. Everything about it is England. Late in the film, Ricci’s even supposed to have written on a blackboard in a classroom, and whoever did the actual writing spelled “practice” as “practise.” So why does the movie insist that Brit actors with identifiable voices—James McAvoy, Richard E. Grant, Nick Frost—adopt American accents? And if it’s going to go this route, why doesn’t the same rule apply to other actors like Simon Woods? (Is it because Woods is the film’s bad guy, and we all know that people with British accents are at the very least suspect?) Are we still in the land of Brit-o-phobia, as when New World Pictures made Clive Barker rerecord dialogue for the 1987 film Hellraiser on the theory that American audiences wouldn’t go to see it if they knew it was a British picture?
Beyond this, there are a few plot holes—especially concerning the powers of the witch who cooks up the curse. And the story is overall on the predictable side. Still, the acting is fine—McAvoy and Dinklage are especially good—and the film looks terrific. Plus, it’s just plain likable, and that’s a nice quality in itself. Rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language.