Penelope had been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years before it was finally released this week. I’m not sure why. It has a lighter sense of whimsy and a more suggestive way of folding fairy tale details into a modern world story than Enchanted, which went right for the bright, bubbly atmosphere and and its opposite: urban cynicism, or at least a sense of humorless practicality.
Christina Ricci plays a modern twist on the cursed princess tale, hidden away in her lavish but lonely castle (in this case, a mansion decked out with a pretty cool room and an indoor swing) where likely princes are invited to woo her, if they can pass the test. The test essentially is that they don’t rush off in terror after viewing her facial anomaly: Her porcine snout. As facial abnormalities go, it isn’t much more than a extremely flattened turned-up nose and Christina Ricci manages to make even that look kind of cute. Yet they still tend to throw themselves through a second story window in a flight of blind panic. An extreme reaction, to be sure, but it’s that kind of movie. It doesn’t explain the reaction, it lets us draw out own conclusions. Mine is pretty simple: the hereditary rich, the blue bloods, are vain, shallow creatures obsessed with appearances and either terrified or horrified by anything that does not conform. Even Mom (Catherine O’Hara) isn’t some scheming incarnation of the wicked stepmother, merely a hysterically shallow society woman so obsessed with surface trappings and social opinion that she can’t see past any of it to really see her daughter. Insensitive, maybe, but not intentionally cruel.
Ricci plays her part with a resigned acceptance of her fate – after seven years of dramatic rejection, she’s learned to speed up the interview process and send them scurrying without wasting time on preamble – but with a pluck and a spunk that has survived the ordeal. She defies the storybook expectations when she runs away to hide out in the city behind a scarf. And when she’s revealed, she’s embraced by the public. More as a curiosity than a person, to be sure, but at least she’s not shunned. She’s sort of like the Elephant Man, after his embrace by enough opinon-makers – it’s trendy to like her, and this is a place of affectations over sincerity.
… director Mark Palansky plays it in more modest key than Tim Burton’s imaginative fantasias. He fills his world with snobs out of an Edwardian drawing room comedy, shadowy gambling dens of ’40s crime films, and a timeless tabloid culture.
There are some flat moments, to be sure, and Palansky’s direction can be a bit unsteady and awkward, but he doesn’t wallow in the eccentricities or the modestly self-empowering moral. This fairy tale feels pleasantly down-to-earth.
Read my full review in the Seattle P-I here.