by Sarah Leong
Penelope is a story of discovering and creating one’s identity. The plot follows Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci), a young woman who’s born with a curse upon her wealthy family—that the next girl to the line would be born with the nose of a pig. The only way for the curse to be lifted is by “one of their own” to accept her, which her parents interpreted as someone of Wilhern descent accepting her hand in marriage. The movie follows her story of trying to find a suitor in order to lift the curse and involves multiple interactions with people from the outside world.
The characters followed suit of a fairy-tale story, with a sheltered female protagonist, parents with old values, a charming romantic interest with deep, dark secrets, a meddling villain, and a happy ending. Penelope grew up hidden from the world because her parents didn’t want other people to see her pig-nose and make fun of her for it and make Penelope insecure. As a result, when Penelope was old enough, the parents set up private meetings for suitors to visit their home and meet Penelope. The suitors would freak out and try to make a run for it, but the family forced them to sign a contract of secrecy. Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a nosy reporter, hears about Penelope through a suitor that had seen Penelope and escaped the castle before signing the contract. As a result of desiring a juicy story, Lemon tracks down Max Campion (James McAvoy), who was discovered as a descendant of a wealthy family. Max was a son cut off from the family because of his gambling problem, so Lemon knew he would be able to hook Max into going through with his plan.
Through an animated narrative voice-over thanks to Penelope herself, we get a great idea of the intelligent, curious, and thoughtful girl that she is. The viewer cannot help but to empathize with her desire to be free of her parents’ adamancy (primarily her mother) of getting the curse lifted. Ricci does a brilliant job bringing Penelope’s wanderlust character to life through a dynamic range of facial expressions around her nose as well as a character within her tone of voice to portray the endearing protagonist. In this way, Penelope proves relatable to many viewers who have a wide-eyed wonder about the world outside of their comfort zone.
Penelope’s father (Richard E. Grant) is the passive parent; therefore, most of the drama comes from Penelope’s high-strung mother, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara). Jessica is absolutely convinced that she’s doing what’s best for her daughter and going about it the right way. Unfortunately, she cannot see that Penelope is suffering because her mom is so bent on fixing her, that she completely misses the hardship Penelope is enduring. Viewers can relate to Penelope’s relationship with her mother because many people have felt frustrated or oppressed by his or her parents at times. The child feels the parent is completely blind to his or her suffering, and that simple miscommunication on the child’s part and failure to recognize the child’s misery on the parent’s part results in the tension that Penelope and Jessica encounter.
Initially, Max Campion is a sketchy-looking character, but once the viewers see him interacting with Penelope, we witness him develop genuine interest in her, rather than the reward. Max is a complex character with a deep backstory that is touched on but not elaborated nearly enough in my opinion. He stands as the anticipated “saving grace” for Penelope, which turns out to be a flop. I found this to be an excellent salute to our tendency to believe we can help any situation, but soon realize that we cannot always play white knight.
The film’s production utilized a time-period/modern setting, wide angles, and swelling music to emphasize the wonder and adventure Penelope experiences throughout the film. The castle-like home she lives in is very extravagant and had a very old-English time-period feel (similar to the setting of movies such as Nanny McPhee), whereas the world around her seems much more modern day London, with cobblestone roads and pubs and bustling bars. It was a fantastic balance between old and new in terms of fashion, culture, and dialogue. The shots included many bright colors and soft lights to enhance the entire magical feel to the film, which the music assisted as well.
Joby Talbot composed the score originally for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005; Arctic Tale, 2007). I was very pleased with the orchestration, consisting of strings in the high register, which always symbolizes either magic or love—or in the case of this movie, both. With dynamic swells and themes, the viewer can experience the emotions with the characters. During the scene of Max playing the piano, Talbot had composed a beautiful piano instrumental that was used in the theater showings of the film, but unfortunately replaced with a soundtrack song in the DVD release. This disappointed me because there was a lot of dimension in the piece, backed by a string section, emphasizing the emotions Max was experiencing from leaving Penelope, as well as paralleling the wonder Penelope experienced by riding around town and seeing the world for the first time.
In my experience, recommending Penelope to my friends has proven to be difficult because I struggle to summarize the movie without giving away too much about what makes it such a feel-good film. It appears to be yet another damsel-in-distress film, and it’s not until the final plot twist at the end of the film (SPOILER) that it is revealed all she had to do was accept herself.
Families can pull lessons for discussion from the movie, although the topics may be too deep for younger children to engage in. I appreciate the message that emphasized on how, many times, we search for ways to fix our flaws, when all we really need to do is accept them and find ways to live with them. Unfortunately, our flaws cannot be whisked away as if they were a magic spell, but it may definitely feel that way when we feel alleviated by the things we once considered our “curses.” Ultimately, we are capable of finding our identity and happiness on our own without needing the approval of others around us.