Don’t you love a good fairy tale? I certainly do. But you can only watch so many versions of Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes a fairy tale with a new story and fresh perspective is needed. And that’s just what Penelope offers.
A long time ago, a witch cursed the aristocratic Wilherns. The first daughter born into this wealthy family would be born with the face of a pig. The only way to break this curse is for her to be loved by one of her own kind, a blueblood. After many generations of sons, Penelope becomes the unfortunate bearer of this cruel curse.
Ashamed of her daughter, Jessica Wilhern has hidden her away in the family home for most of Penelope’s life. But in recent years, she has been working with a professional matchmaker to find an aristocratic man willing to marry Penelope and break the curse. Edward Vanderman, the most recent man to reject the sweet-natured “pig-girl,” has teamed up with Lemon, a journalist holding a long-standing grudge towards Jessica. They hire Max Campion, a gambler they believe to be a fallen blue-blood. Max agrees to secretly snap a picture of Penelope for a pay-off thousands of dollars.
But Penelope’s gun-shy and doesn’t show herself to Max right away. Instead, he’s forced to make multiple visits to the Wilhern mansion. With a one-way mirror between them, Max and Penelope develop a friendship through many conversations. However, the individual plans of Jessica Wilhern, Edward, Lemon and Max all go awry when Penelope finally decides to run away from everyone’s plans for her. What will happen to a girl who has lived in seclusion all her life when she finally discovers the world? Can the curse truly be broken or will Penelope find another way?
From my first viewing of Penelope years ago, I was instantly charmed. This fantasy/fairy tale shares some similarities with stories like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. But there’s a lot more to it than a beautiful princess seeking a prince to rescue her, or a savage beast waiting for love to see past the surface. However, I can’t tell you more or I risk spoilers.
Penelope is a charming young woman whose pig nose has less to do with her cursed life than she thinks. Her mother’s fear and embarrassment has imprisoned her even more than the curse. Still, Penelope’s understanding nature allows her to forgive a mother who is constantly reminding her of all that is wrong with her. It also allows her to rationally accept why rich young men continue to run away at the very sight of her face. There is a lot more to Penelope than her physical appearance and she is the only one who seems to know that.
Enter Max. I love the plot device that allows Penelope and Max to develop a friendship without ever seeing each other. It’s very reminiscent of films like You’ve Got Mail, where the man and woman learn to care for each other’s true selves without the distracting and shallow factor of physical appearances. Max is one of the first people that Penelope is really able to be her true self with. His acceptance of her gives her the courage to break free from her mother and to discover who she really is. In turn, Penelope’s bravery inspires Max to become a better man and to pursue forgotten dreams.
NOT JUST THE FAIRY TALE
But it’s not only the fairy tale or Penelope’s journey of self-discovery I find enchanting. The cinematography is colorful, unique and slightly off-kilter as befitting a fantasy film. In fact, it reminded me a bit of a Baz Luhrmann film without all the singing. The costuming is equally quirky, especially for Penelope, giving the viewer the feeling that this story is a one of a kind fairy tale.
Along with the cinematography and costuming, the cast of Penelope is brilliant and really helps sell this modern fairy tale. I can’t imagine anyone else but Christina Ricci and James McAvoy as Penelope and Max. Their chemistry together is touching.
Catherine O’Hara also kills it as the shallow, selfish but loving mother. Peter Dinklage is perfect as the grudge carrying Lemon who is changed when he finally catches the expose story he’s been chasing for years. It’s fun to see familiar faces pop up in other supporting roles too such as Richard E Grant as Penelope’s father, Simon Woods as Edward Vanderman, Burn Gorman as Lemon’s fellow reporter and even Russell Brand in one of his earliest roles makes a brief appearance. Then there’s Reese Witherspoon who plays against type in a small role as Penelope’s punk biker friend. Witherspoon also served as a producer on the film.
Penelope really is a lovely little film which takes the familiar tropes and repackages them into a meaningful message we all need to be reminded of. Just what that message is, I will let you discover along with Penelope herself. It’s a journey I think you will enjoy.
Content Note: Rated PG, it does contain a handful of mild curse words.
Where to Watch: Stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu. Rent or buy Google Play, iTunes or Vudu.
Photo Credit: Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment
Have you seen Penelope? Do you agree with my opinion of its’ treatment of fairy tale tropes? What are some of your favorite fairy tales?
“You had me at hello.”
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My
feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me
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