Face it, I think we're attracted to beautiful things and are repulsed by almost anything that does not look appealing at first sight. For a girl, I suppose having a face of a pig is a living nightmare, and what more when you can do absolutely no cosmetic surgery to remove the snout? That's basically the premise of this quirky but charming fairy tale of a story in Penelope, where a descendent of a high society family gets cursed as payment for the sins of her ancestors, being the first born female of the lineage and made to suffer from prominent physical defects, with only the love of one of her kind to break the spell and set her free.
The story took me by surprise because it was full of nice little nuggets of comedy which genuinely tickles your funny bone, without trying too hard or by being dumb at all. It plays out rather intelligently, and have very lovable characters, well at least for the "good guys", and nasty characters were just plain rotten on the inside. It served to play on the cliche reminder that beauty is only skin deep, and what matters really is the principles and values that one possess and practise. And to think that it's a simple story is missing the point, as it comes filled with enough carefully plotted twists and turns of a Brit comedy, complete with dry wit, that makes Penelope irresistibly charming.
I've grown up watching Christina Ricci on the big screen since her Wednesday days with the Addams Family movies, and from then on, her roles have been nothing but eclectic, from duds like The Gathering, to the more recent temptress type roles like her stint in Black Snake Moan. She returns to her girlie charming ways with the titular character, who's living the curse on her lithe shoulders. While on one hand she openly laments her frustration and loathes all the matchmaking attempts that Mom (Catherine O'Hara) arranges for her, Ricci also brought across the pain of rejection that Penelope feels each time guys leap out windows to confront their initial shock and fear. A continuous string of rejections will sap away all optimism anyone has, and will likely make anyone swear off trying to do more.
Then came James McAvoy's Max, a blue-blood who didn't bolt but held his ground, for some time. He's quite the nerd turned perfect assassin in Wanted, but here he ditches all the machismo crap but dumbed it down a little as a romantic leading man with a shaggy dog look, except that this leading man's an obsessive gambler with great charm to get under Penelope's skin. There's nothing to shout about regarding his role here, except that in my opinion, he's there to personify the widely held belief of letting someone go in order for them to seek their true happiness, while being the contrast to the utterly revolting and whiny Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods) who despises our leading lady, only to try and satisfy strategic reasons for an alliance in matrimony.
The supporting characters are a joy to watch too, and Catherine O'Hara's Jessica Wilhem has some of the best scenes in the movie hamming it up as the uber-concerned mother doing her very best to shield her unlucky child from unwanted attention. Peter Dinklage as the dogged reporter out for a scoop also deserves a shout-out, and he's in my radar too as one of the character actors to watch, after enjoyable turns in Death at a Funeral, and as Trumpkin in Prince Caspian. Fans of Hot Fuzz's Nick Frost must also keep your eyes peeled for his very small role, and Resse Whitherspoon who also serves as producer of the movie, has no more than a combined total of about 10 minutes in the film.
What I credit the movie for is its telling of the story through rather non-conventional means, which would have otherwise really sapped all the charm, and presented itself as a rather plain movie to sit through. But without big sets or sequences (just a very huge and aesthetically done makeup prop), this small movie didn't waste its potential, and makes for a very perfect film to sit through with friends, or loved ones (meaning it's a perfect date movie lah!) It's been some time since I had an enjoyable time at the movies with fairy tales, and Penelope put that faith back in me. And you know what the surprise is? That it makes it through as a contender for one of my top movies of the year, because it won me over with its sheer magical simplicity.