They say there are no great love stories any more. "They" haven't seen "Penelope." I almost hate to tell you what it's about, so that the full effect of this fresh, original fable will take you by storm when you go see it--you are going, right?--but this is a review, so here goes. Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born with a pig's snout. It's complicated. Something to do with a curse that can only be broken when Penelope finds true love from "one of her kind" (she was born into an aristocratic family). Penelope is hidden away from the world by her loving but overprotective parents. (Her mother is played by a scene-stealing Catherine O'Hara.) Would-be suitors are screened by Penelope herself through a one-way mirror, but all flee in terror when they actually see her. All except Max ("Atonement's" James McAvoy). But he "can't" marry her and doesn't tell her why not.
The plot is thickened by a news reporter (Peter Dinklage) and a would-have-been suitor, Edward (Simon Woods), who both need Penelope for their own purposes. Each member of the cast is the right ingredient for a perfect potion, except for a distracting and unnecessary character who enters halfway through the story (Reese Witherspoon). "Penelope" screams to be experienced on the big screen because of its many close-ups, both touching and humorous. The pace is a little uneven, but James McAvoy literally holds the entire picture together with his eyes. The constant, unexpected quips and comedy are blindsiding at every turn, and somehow, the ovine jokes never get old. Lots of attention to quirky little "we've never seen this before in a movie" details really pays off. The profuse narration (Penelope) is seamless and festive. Penelope's world is very small, but it feels like a Big Story, alternating between the sublime and the absurd in a flash.
This is not a chick flick by any means. Relationships are straightened out in order of self, family, and last but not least: lover. The romantic love in "Penelope" simply cannot be based on physical attraction, so Penelope and Max "date" through the mirror for a while in various ways, including a chess game. They reveal themselves to each other interiorly before Penelope reveals herself in the flesh. How cool is that? Unlike so many love stories today, this establishes a believable connection, rapport, and compatibility. So, although not a chick flick, it's definitely a date flick, or "how to date" flick.
Of course we want to know right away: Is Max really a nice guy or will he break her heart? (And of course the answer could be "yes" to both.) Max is a nice guy, not in a superhero kind of way, but in what John Paul II would call an "ordinary love" kind of way. He gradually and quietly does all the right things by her. The unique kiss at the end says it all.
Although a PG rating (there's nothing "objectionable," not even language), and sure to delight all ages, this is a grown-up film. We can all feel our own "snouts" (or rather, Penelope's snout puts our snouts in perspective) and while we agonize with Penelope, we realize her parents and others are more of a wreck over it than she is.
The film successfully avoids easy moralistic lessons such as, "Let's accept people who are different from us," and yet is jam-packed with nuanced wisdom. Wonderfully written and executed, "Penelope" is one of those films where you'll feel yourself invited and welcomed to get into the story and interact right in the theater. Don't hold back.
Despite lush, colorful, toned-down-Tim-Burton-esque sets, and an unpinpointable time frame (1930's typewriters, 1970's cars and telephones, 19th and 21st century clothing) and country (it's both British and American), "Penelope" is never pretentious. It's a confident, funny film that knows its own worth and carries us through to a strong, self-assured ending. Something like Penelope herself.
It's just a shame "Penelope" wasn't out in time for Valentine's Day.
June 2008--June 2009
Year of St. Paul
Sr. Helena Burns, fsp
Daughters of St. Paul / Pauline Books & Media
172 N. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60601 USA
Publishing House / Vocations / Spanish: www.pauline.org
Movie Nights, Women's Book Club, Bible Studies, Theology of the Body: www.daughtersofstpaul.com/bookcenters/chicago/index.html