A FANTASY FOR THE AGES
Catherine O'Hara plays Jessica, an expectant high-society mother expecting her daughter to be born as beautiful as her. Instead, what arrives is Penelope, who to the shock of doctors, is born with a pig's nose.
There is this familial curse in Jessica's husband's family that has failed to rear its head for centuries. The curse only hits girls and after a century of boys, Penelope's arrival sets it in motion. A curse born of scorned love can only be broken when Penelope finds true love. Then, the nose will disappear.
Making things difficult for finding a match for Penelope is she hasn't been permitted to leave the house because of the paparazzi culture outside that would devour her.
WHY IT WORKS
"Penelope" manages to serve two purposes in its storytelling. First, it skewers our celebrity obsessed culture. Secondly, this is a fantasy told as a modern message story. In a world marred by war and recession, those seeking escape receive it in one of the most charming stories in years with "Penelope."
Jessica begins ushering potential suitors for her daughter into the house with a confidentiality agreement. No wonder, given the fact most end up jumping through the second story window rather than spend one minute with Penelope.
Penelope then sets out on a discovery of self that sits at the heart of any fairy tale. Inner beauty is the soul of "Penelope" and mirroring the classic fairy tales of old, the film delivers the priceless message subtly, entertaining while it enlightens.
The key to the entire film working is the title character. Although the film's producer, Reese Witherspoon, flirted with the role, by employing Christina Ricci, she has found an actress who can sell an entire story solely through her eyes.
As Penelope ventures into the world, escaping her mother's well-meaning yet overbearing protection, she adorns a scarf over her nose and begins to live her life. Among her first stops is a pub where she discovers the joys of libations and Reese Witherspoon's Annie. The tough-as-nails "broad," as Witherspoon has described her character, forms a dynamic duo of mentor and the mentored with Penelope witnessing the wonderful world that is painted in "Penelope" for the first time.
It is impossible to imagine anyone else in this role. Ricci has always been an actress whose range knows no bounds, but with "Penelope," the thespian is able to expand her range to include a softer side masked with intensity pierced through her eyes.
JAMES MCAVOY…A STAR IS BORN
Witherspoon refers to the casting of James McAvoy as someone she got while he was "cheap." The truth is in this film, McAvoy shows the promise he has emitted in a half-dozen films thus far on American audiences. His portrayal is subtle, yet giant in its arc.
As one of the last suitors to meet Penelope before she heads out on her own, McAvoy's character is taken with her and can't get the pig-nosed girl out of his head. McAvoy and Ricci share an incomparable chemistry and audiences should hope for these two to work together again soon.
McAvoy's latest success with his appearance in "Atonement" could certainly help bring attention to "Penelope." Yet this film stands on its own because of a well-written script executed by a director producing a stellar sense of wonder.
CATHERINE O'HARA'S OVER THE TOP AND WE LOVE IT
O'Hara's mother in "Penelope" is the classic fairy tale foil and mentor rolled into one character. The actress portrays her strong and harried, yet never too over the top.
The veteran comedienne brings a wry wit to the film. Her character's shielding of Penelope all while denying her the world that may embrace her is the conflict in this film.
How O'Hara handles the zany mastery of this fairy tale set in a modern world showcases why her casting was absolutely inspired.
THE FIRST TIME DIRECTOR
Mark Palansky's even directing coupled with a feature film-debuting screenplay from "Everyone Loves Raymond" writer Leslie Caveny, produces a big-eyed innocence to film-making that translates into the marvel audiences feel gazing through Penelope's eyes.
"Penelope" is a film for princesses of all ages.
Check back tomorrow for our QnA with Penelope herself, Christina Ricci.