There were several modern reimaginings of the Cinderella story on TV this Xmas, but they largely chose to dispense with the magical elements that made the original fairy tales so much fun… whereas Penelope (2006) is a gender-reversed retelling of Beauty and the Beast, complete with a mystical curse that can only be broken by True Love and Acceptance. Aw.
For those who don’t know, this fantasy rom-com stars Christina Ricci as the eponymous ‘Penelope Wilhern’, a cultured young woman from a wealthy, noble family, who has nevertheless been cursed with the nose and ears of a pig. For why? Well, a couple of centuries back, a caddish Wilhern fella knocked up the daughter of “the town witch” (!), and then spurned her when news of the pregnancy reached his parents. Distraught, the poor girl took her own life, prompting her mother to teach the insensitive toffs a lesson about empathy, by dooming their next (hypothetical) daughter to be born with porcine features. For five generations they somehow managed to only conceive sons… until Penelope came along, to foot the ancestral bill, and live as a lonely recluse in the family pile, following a mock funeral that the family staged to keep the press off their backs. Which is all very sad, I’m sure, but the way Penelope glibly refers to the suicidal servant girl “falling off a cliff” suggests that the witch’s legacy has so far failed to soften the family’s hearts to those less fortunate than themselves!
Anyhoo, the old hag was nice enough to include a get-out clause, announcing that the curse could only be broken when “one of your own kind claims her as their own, ‘till death do they part”… which strongly implies marriage, right? I mean she’s quoting the marriage vows, so what else could it be? Right? Right? Sigh… Penelope’s parents make the same (perfectly logical) assumption, and contact a matchmaker to help corral countless potential suitors to chat with their daughter via a one-way mirror, in the hopes that they will be so charmed by her personality they’ll be willing to overlook her physical defects when the big reveal arrives. Unfortunately Penelope is a wilful fatalist, who has a habit of springing herself on the unsuspecting suitors before they’ve had a chance to get properly acquainted, prompting the horrified Romeos to go running for the gates, as fast as their loafers will carry them. In all the chaos and confusion, a scheming tabloid hack manages to sneak in a devilishly handsome ringer of his own, armed with a concealed camera, and the alias of ‘Max Campion’. As played by James McAvoy, Max is a very charming and witty man, who manages to keep Penelope from jumping the gun far longer than any of his predecessors… unfortunately he’s also afflicted with a crippling gambling addiction, and may not have quite as much “blue blood” running through his veins as he’s led everyone to believe!
Despite a fairly amusing script, there were several major issues that prevented me from getting swept up in this particular story of star-crossed love:
1) The movie was filmed entirely in Britain, using locations in and around the south of England, and with a largely native cast… yet, for some unfathomable reason, they try to pretend that everything is taking place on the other side of the pond, with everyone putting on American accents (some more successfully than others). If it was simply a matter of wanting to have an American actress in the lead role, why couldn’t they have asked her to put on a English accent… or just said that the family were American, but that they’d moved back to England to tap into our pool of resident aristocrats (especially since most of her suitors seem to be English anyway)? Considering the story concerns “old money” and class prejudice, and takes place in stately homes and old-timey pubs, it seems ridiculous that they went to so much trouble to keep up this illogical pretence! Gah!
2) Penelope isn’t a “beast” in any conceivable sense of the word… as you can clearly see, she’s a very beautiful young woman, with gorgeous eyes, a super-cute smile, and a large, piggy nose… so the scenes of men jumping through plate-glass windows to escape her are utterly inconceivable to me. I’d be more than happy to date a woman who looked like that, but fear she may still be way out of my league! I might have been more convinced if the witch had cursed her with a furry face and fangs, or something more bestial like that… but she just looks far too human, and far too pretty, to really inspire the sort of extreme reactions that we’re shown. Is that why she was covered up with a scarf in all of the promo images? Because it really wasn’t worth the big tease.
I also have a real problem with the way it all plays out. After finally revealing herself to the public and the press, Penelope’s courage inspires Max to go cold turkey on the gambling, and start practising his piano-playing again. At this point I assumed that we were heading for a slightly subversive ending, where Max would confess that he’s a commoner and could never break the curse, assuming they were to wed… but she’d declare that she didn’t care how she looked so long as they were in love, and then they’d ride off into the sunset together, pig-face and all! Now that would be romantic as f*ck. Instead, Penelope breaks her own curse by finally deciding that she likes herself just the way she is… at which point her face magically conforms to a more socially-acceptable form of beauty, immediately undercutting her supposed epiphany, and making it seem like the witch was deliberately trying to mislead the audience with her wedding-related wording!
As for the cast: I’ve been a life-long fan of Ricci’s, and think she gives a great performance here… especially in the scenes where Penelope runs away from home and plays a “fish out of water” in the big scary world. Catherine O’Hara is scarily convincing as Penelope’s mother, a rather repellent harridan obsessed with getting her daughter hitched at any cost. Producer Reese Witherspoon seems slightly miscast as ‘Annie’, the “tough chick” bike courier who befriends Penelope in the outside world, but has absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Ronni Ancona is fun to watch as ‘Wanda’ the family’s matchmaker, although she doesn’t have many scenes. And a shout-out to Peter Dinklage, who rocks his role as ‘Lemon’, the wounded paparazzo who becomes Penelope’s behind-the-scenes saviour, after she puts an all-too-human face to the urban myth he’s been obsessing over for so many years. But the less said about Richard E. Grant, Russell Brand and Nick Frost, the better.