Review by Robert Bell
"Beauty and the Beast" meets "The Frog Prince" in this creative update on fairy tale ideas of love and beauty. "Penelope" isn't going to reinvent the fantasy genre by any means, but it does offer a pleasant perspective on loving someone for who they are rather than what is seen on the surface.
A curse has been put on the Wilhern family stating that the first born daughter in their lineage will have the face of a pig. For generations the Wilhern's produce only sons, until the arrival of "Penelope" (Christina Ricci). Her mother Jessica Wilhern (Catherine O'Hara), embarrassed by her daughter's face, keeps Penelope sheltered from the world in their secluded mansion. Knowing that the only way to break the curse is for Penelope to be accepted by another "blueblood", Jessica looks across the land for a suitor willing to marry her pig-faced daughter.
Meanwhile, a determined reporter (Peter Dinklage) wants to get a picture of Penelope and enlists the help of Max (James McAvoy) to pose as a suitor to obtain it. Unexpectedly, Max develops feelings for Penelope that he is hesitant to act on.
Screenwriter Leslie Caveny has written a solid feature debut. While the film is essentially a fantasy, it stays grounded in reality. The character of Penelope is never painted as a victim, or ignorant about who or what she is. She is aware of the realities of her predicament and deals with them in a relatively productive way. Her development is well handled as she deals with disappointment, depression, and hope in a believable manner. This is a young woman trying to find her place in a world that she essentially isn't allowed to fit into. Caveny does a good job making the character relatable, and someone we want to follow on the journey. There are some rough edges surrounding how the potential suitors respond to Penelope, and the Jessica Wilhern character often delves into clichéd territory, but the film works overall.
Mark Palansky has interpreted the film well behind the camera. He never takes the film too far into a world of fantasy, which works for the film as the previously discussed screenplay is relatively grounded in a relatable reality. He pulls some solid performances from his leads Ricci & McAvoy, instinctually knowing when to let the scene linger for emotional effect. There could have been some more visual flourish considering the source material, and some of the conflict situations could have been tightened up to create a more dramatic effect, but Palansky shows promise and has done a fine job with an early effort behind the camera.
The strongest performance in the film comes from James McAvoy as a depressive compulsive gambler who finds beauty in Penelope's genuine nature and sincere interest in him. He communicates a lot through simple glances and body language. There is a great depth in his eyes that brings some dimension to the love story presented. Ricci is typically strong here as a young woman trying to find her place in a world destined to point and stare at her difference. She plays the role with subtlety and charm, focusing on sincerity rather than weakness.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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