Penelope Review

We are the pigs!

Once upon a time…Penelope was born. She was the first girl to be born to the house of Wilhern in several generations and the first to fall victim to the curse that had been placed on the family by a wicked witch many years before. Instead of the features typical of a young girl, Penelope bears the mark of a pig, reflecting the piggish and selfish nature of her family. Having faked her death while still an infant, her mother and father (Catherine O’Hara and Richard E Grant) raise the girl behind the walls of their estate and in private rooms far away from where visitors might stray. Left alone, Penelope grows up, waiting to fall in love with one who will lift the curse.

Years pass and in spite of the compliments paid by the wealthy young men who come calling on Penelope – having been invited by her mother and father and forced to sign gag orders – she watches as each and every one of them run screaming from her home on first seeing her face. One or two photographers still circle the home in the hope of snatching a picture of the girl and when the paths of Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (Simon Woods) and Lemon (Peter Dinklage), well-to-do young man and opportunistic snapper, meet, they believe they know how best to reveal Penelope to the world. The poor sap who is an unwilling part of their plan is Max (James McAvoy) but as he and Penelope talk, play chess and listen to music together, they both realise that their lives could be so very different. Penelope simply wants to live outside her well-appointed prison and to be free. Late one night, her face wrapped in a scarf, she slips out the door and off into the night.

No matter how grotesque Penelope is reputed to be in this film, one must always remember that she is played by Christina Ricci and there is, therefore, a limit as to how ugly she can be. In truth, and in spite of the screaming of her suitors as they swiftly exit her home, Penelope is merely Christina Ricci hidden behind a larger-than-average nose and ears that are often lost in the curls of her hair. If the trailer suggested a creature akin to Belial (from Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case), the truth is very different. And, indeed, it is all the better for that as this allows Penelope to be the fairy tale that it’s ‘once upon a time…’ opening promised it would be.

And a fairy tale it is, right from his potted history of the Wilhern family to its sunlit London streets in which red Routemasters still ride, fireworks sparkle over Hyde Park and everyone greets their cockney peers with a raised glass and a, “Cheers!” Penelope is as fantastical as the stories of princes and princesses with London looking just magical enough to this modern-day fairy tale. As the leads, Christina Ricci and James McAvoy do very well on their own but lack any real sense of connection. Granted, they aren’t actually given the chance to embrace until late in the film – early conversations take place through mirrors and intercoms – and though this does rather spoil any sense of romance, Penelope does eventually gather itself for a rather sweet final reel. This may not be as stirring a romance as Brief Encounter but for younger girls, it will be as welcome a love affair as that between Snow White and Prince Charming or between Barbie and Ken.

On the other hand, there’s precious few surprises in Penelope. Edward Vanderman is a perfect cad until the very end but Lemon quickly learns his lesson, even to pushing what blood money he makes off selling a picture of Penelope to the side and off his desk. Max puts away his poker chips and with the help of Russell Brand, who seems an unlikely saviour, sets himself down at his piano once more. In a London boozer, Penelope, who is as meek as a lamb, meets the streetwise Annie (Reese Witherspoon) and very soon the two are skitting around London on her Vespa. And just when it seems as though Penelope and Max are not destined to be together, the stars align and they meet again. As the story draws to a close, so lessons are learned, love is declared and all seems right with the world. Perhaps not quite how it is in real life but owing so much to The Ugly Duckling and to Cinderella, it was never going to be any different.

Momentum have been very quietly and without much fuss releasing some very good quality DVDs, notably the CSI boxsets, which remain of a very high technical standard. This is no different. The quality of the image is evident from the very beginning, with the picture looking sharp, colourful, bright and full of detail. As with its fairy tale setting, so the colours are a little richer than real life but just as this worked so well on Nanny McPhee, it does so here as well. Things become more muted when the action shifts to London, which, try as the filmmakers might, isn’t ever going to look as chocolate-box-pretty as a mansion in the Home Counties, but the DVD still retains a sharpness throughout.

The DD5.1 audio – an English audio description track is also included – is fine but it’s not the kind of film to make very much use of the surround channels. Not that talky a film either, Penelope just kind of gets by without very much fuss. There may be very little noise on the soundtrack but neither is there very much to get excited by. Finally, there are English subtitles throughout.

There isn’t a great deal here but, then again, Penelope isn’t the kind of film that demands a clutter of extras. A commentary, for example, would have been simply too much, with it being fitting that Penelope comes with nothing more than a Trailer (1m43s), a short Featurette (5m21s) on the making of the film and a Photo Gallery. There is also some DVD ROM Content, which includes Wallpapers, a Screensaver and a print-out-and-wear Penelope mask.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jun 23, 2008

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