By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 6, 2008
Believe in yourself—appreciate people for who they are—look beyond the obvious … all of these are valuable lessons offered up by the film “Penelope,” a charming new fairy tale with a heart of gold.
“Penelope” starts with an explanation of a curse that has afflicted the youngest member of the wealthy Wilhern family. Because an ancestor did not have the courage to defy his family and marry the young serving girl he loved, the girl’s mother, a witch declared that the next girl born to the family would be born with the features of a pig and would remain that way until one of her own kind loved her truly. Several generations pass, and the first Wilhern girl is Penelope, who is, indeed, cursed with a snout. After suffering the intrusions of a curious press, her parents decide to fake her death so that she can grow up in peace.
Eighteen years later, after an isolated childhood, Penelope’s overprotective mother has prepared her to begin meeting suitors, seeing this as the only way to break the curse. Unfortunately, the young men are repulsed by Penelope and flee as soon as they see her face. After seven years of rejection, Penelope is disillusioned and a little bitter about the whole process. Eventually, though, one young man, a down-and-out gambler is brought to her door through some unusual circumstances. She hides from him, communicating only through a two-way mirror, but soon he breaks down her reserve and in turn, he draws something out of the reclusive young woman. When he finally sees her, though, he tells her that he cannot marry her.
Completely disillusioned, Penelope runs away from home and tries her luck in the city. There, of course, her secret is revealed, and she is pleasantly surprised when her new friends accept her just as she is. She gains enough self-esteem so that when she is faced with a difficult choice about her future, she has the confidence to make the right, though more painful, decision.
At the end of the film, Penelope tells her story to a group of children, then asks what the moral of the story is. After a few amusing guesses, one gets it right: “It’s not the power of the curse—it’s the power you give the curse.” Penelope learns that living her life according to someone else’s choices is just a waste of time.
“Penelope” is set in a fanciful world that is neither past nor exactly present. The location is indeterminate, too, as the city Penelope runs to has elements of New York, London and Paris all mixed up together. Created from bright, whimsical colors, the scenery, costumes and sets all work together to create a bold and vivid setting for the fairy tale.
The film is also filled with talented actors; Christina Ricci and James McAvoy are sympathetic and have a believable chemistry as Penelope and her unlucky beau. The scenes they have together are charming and full of growing emotion.
Catherine O’Hara is also a standout as Penelope’s mother, Jessica. While overbearing and domineering, she never allows the audience to forget that all of her machinations and outbursts spring from a desire to protect her daughter and do what she thinks is best for Penelope. Richard Dinklage is alternately scheming and sympathetic as the reporter Lemon, and Richard E. Grant does his best to fade into the background as Jessica’s long-suffering husband and Penelope’s father. Several other fine supporting actors are simply not given enough to do—the movie is full of familiar faces. Although featured strongly in the advertising for the film, Reese Witherspoon has little to do as Penelope’s best friend in the city.
“Penelope” is a little film with a big heart. The audience is treated to a genuinely appealing story. Funny, sweet and wise, the film takes many traditional fairy tale tropes and gives them a twist. Like most fairy tales, the downtrodden heroine’s only salvation seems to be in a handsome prince. In “Penelope,” however, this prince turns out to be anything but charming, and instead, the heroine realizes that she has never needed anyone’s help to become the person she wants to be.
The film contains a very strong and positive message showing the value of being proud of the individual that you are, and in appreciating the people around you—hopefully, not the stuff of fairy tales.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.