The Case of Penelope (2006)

Hello Cassettes, and welcome back to the Black Case Diaries!

Well, today’s episode is actually a fan suggestion! We asked Robin’s sister Becky what she would like us to cover for her birthday this month. She chose the film Penelope starring Christina Ricci and James McAvoy because she feels that it has been looked at unfairly, especially by critics. Well, we love giving movies a second chance here at BCD, so we’re excited to talk about it! Spoilers ahead!!

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 and releasing two years later in the United States, Penelope was not exactly well-received. It currently has a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.7 out of 10 on IMDB. Although critics liked the story’s message, they turned up their noses at this film and felt it was a bit all over the place. Penelope didn’t break any box office records but wasn’t a flop, either. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a bit of a hidden gem relegated to discount bins and free streaming services, just waiting to be discovered! 

So today, we will get people talking about the girl born with a pig nose once again. Grab your brightly-colored scarves because it’s time to go exploring with Penelope.

THE STORY

Sometimes, we set out to make an episode on a film and have a difficult time finding information. Penelope is one of those movies that proved to be a challenge in the research department. So, we’ve decided to review the story and give our thoughts on why it deserves another look. Screenwriter Leslie Caveny put together the story to flip the script on the Beauty and the Beast format. She said, “We have enough stories that prove once again that women will love men no matter what and accept them with all their flaws, so I thought we could use a switching of the gender there.” So, here’s the story of Penelope with some making-of information mixed in!

  • “But local legend had it that a curse was put on the Wilhern Family….” 
    • Penelope begins like any fairytale film should, with narration. We first hear the voice of Penelope, played by Christina Ricci. 
      • Ricci is known for her offbeat characters, gaining popularity as Wednesday Addams in Addams Family in 1991 and as Kat in the 1996 film Casper. She is still a prominent TV and film actress. 
      • Ricci didn’t have to audition for Penelope and was instead approached by Reese Witherspoon for the part. The two women had been friends for years, and Ricci said she was quite flattered that Reese thought of her for the role. 
    • Ricci, as Penelope, tells the audience about a curse placed on her family when an ancestor impregnated one of the house servants and subsequently abandoned her. The woman then committed suicide, which inspired her mother, the town witch, to seek revenge by cursing the family thusly: the next Wilhern girl would be born with the face of a pig. The curse would only be broken when one of her kind, a high society blue blood, learned to love her as she was. 
  • “I’m not the one who ran, mother!”
    • Flash forward to the modern-day, as a young British aristocrat attempts to woo Penelope through a two-way mirror. Penelope’s mother and hired matchmaker watch through surveillance cameras as Penelope reveals her face to the man, prompting him to run. 
    • Here we see Penelope’s face for the first time, a relatively cute pig nose that in no way makes Ricci look ugly. This detail upset critics, as Penelope’s “ugliness” is a significant plot point. Stephen Holden of the New York Times said of the film, “The movie’s fundamental flaws begin with Penelope’s appearance. She is supposed to be so hideous that potential suitors dive out of the windows of her family’s London mansion at the first sight of her.” But more on that later. 
      • Penelope was Mark Palanski’s directorial debut, previously assisting on films like Pearl Harbor, The Amityville Horror, and The Island. Reese Witherspoon chose Palanksi for the movie after seeing his work. Palanski felt it was essential to use a prosthetic that didn’t cover up Christina Ricci’s face so she could still emote. There was a range of noses that they could have chosen from, so a hideous option was available. Ricci felt that having an animal nose was bad enough. Making the character ugly would be adding insult to injury. 
      • The pig prosthetic took an hour and a half to put on, and Ricci couldn’t speak during the process. The actor told Cinemablend that this was difficult for her, as she’s a self-proclaimed “compulsive talker.” 
    • This scene also introduces Catherine O’Hara as Penelope’s mother, Jessica, a vain and uppity woman intent on finding a man to break the curse while keeping Penelope in the shadows. 
      • Catherine O’Hara is a much-loved comedic actress, recently winning an Emmy for her role as Moira Rose in the acclaimed series Schitts Creek. 
      • Jessica fills the role of the overprotective guardian that shields the protagonist from the outside world under the guise of having Penelope’s “best interest at heart.” In fairytale terms, think of her as a Mother Gothel from Tangled
        • Jessica makes Penelope’s curse all about herself, bursting into crocodile tears at the prospect of Penelope (pause for dramatic effect) not finding a suitor (collective gasp). Jessica’s so-called suffering only makes Penelope feel guilt and shame, even though she had nothing to do with the way she was born and has no control over how people will perceive her. 
      • Shortly after this sequence, the film introduces Peter Dinklage as a story-hungry reporter named Lemon, hell-bent on exposing the story of the Wilhern baby born with a pig face. In response, Jessica fakes Penelope’s death, then buries and cremates her to ensure that no one would ever ask about her again. 
        • Peter Dinklage is possibly best known for playing Tyrian Lannister on Game of Thrones, which earned him several Emmy awards. He’s also appeared in Elf (2003) and X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)
      • After the suitor runs, we see a montage of suitors jumping through windows to escape the horror of Penelope’s face. We learn that until today, the Wilherns have been able to keep Penelope’s “condition” a secret through gag orders, but now a troubled man is headed to the police station to report seeing a hideous pig-woman. 
  • “I believe that man is with me.”
    • After the local paper reports that Edward, Penelope’s suitor, is having a mental breakdown and claiming to see a pig-faced woman, the man demands that the paper print a retraction. As security escorts Edward out, Lemon invites him into his van, where they two hatch a plan to expose Penelope. Edward is too scared to face Penelope again, so the men hunt down Max Campion, a blue blood gambling addict, and offer him five grand to get a photo of Penelope.
    • Enter James McAvoy, the love interest for the story. McAvoy is a Scottish actor famous for portraying Charles Xavier in the X-Men films and Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia (2005). 
      • Christina Ricci said that McAvoy is a talented actor and an excellent screen partner, and working with him was a great experience. 
      • In an interview, McAvoy broke down his character by saying that he’s just as trapped as Penelope, and the characters inspire each other to grow and change. 
    • McAvoy, as Max Campion, gets rigged up in a coat that will discreetly take a photo of Penelope when she reveals herself. He heads into some sort of group interview with other suitors. When his camera jacket malfunctions, Max dives behind a couch to fix it. Unfortunately for his mission, but fortunately for the plot, Penelope reveals herself just as Max is hiding. The other men run screaming from the house, but Max stays behind, making Penelope and the family think he already saw her face and didn’t run like the others. 
    • Penelope returns to her hidden room to speak to Max, and the two begin to fall in love. During their first conversation, Max admits that he tried to steal a book because he thought it could be worth a lot of money. Penelope then tells him that there are 300 first editions worth over $50,000. Three-hundred times 50,000 is $15 million—the budget for the film!
    • Intrigued by Penelope and still hoping to earn his five grand, Max promises to return the next day. 
  • “You gotta get out of there sometime.” 
    • As Max returns to Penelope, we see a delightful sequence where McAvoy badly plays several instruments, as Penelope tries to figure out what his instrument is. The couple plays chess, and Max tries to convince her to show herself. Finally, Penelope steps out of her room to play piano with Max. He’s shocked when he sees her face and attempts to touch her nose. But when he hears the camera take the photo, he recoils, leading Penelope to believe that she repulses him. 
    • In this scene, Penelope’s mother, Jessica, discovers Max is working with Lemon, although he does not intend to give him the photo after seeing Penelope’s face. Max confronts Penelope, trying to explain himself. But, Penelope surprises him by showing how little she cares about his motives and her happiness. She’s willing to settle to break the curse. 
    • Penelope delivers a heartbreaking marriage proposal, telling Max that he will break the curse if he accepts her, and she will be like anyone else. Max asks what would happen if the curse can’t be broken, and Penelope says, “then I’ll kill myself, I promise I will.” Upon hearing this, Max declares he can’t marry her, and he’s forced out before he can explain. 
  • “I love you, and goodbye.”
    • With Penelope at her all-time low, Jessica wants to continue looking for suitors. So, Penelope breaks out of the house to explore the outside world. 
      • The outside world for Penelope is a timeless and placeless version of London, populated with a mixture of American and British people. Production designer Amanda McArthur developed an urban storybook landscape with locations like the Cloverdilly Pub, which is actually the Crown and Sceptre Pub in London. Here is where Penelope meets Annie, Reese Witherspoon’s character. This film was Witherspoon’s first as a lead producer and actress.
        • Annie helps Penelope experience life until she accidentally reveals herself as THE Penelope from all the newspapers. 
    • Armed with her mother’s credit card and an adorable cobble-stone scarf, Penelope finds housing, makes friends, and essentially thrives. Of course, it takes her parents almost no time to locate her since she’s using their money.
      • Lemon and Edward are still willing to pay five grand for a photo of Penelope, and since she loses her income, she decides to sell her own image to them for a profit. When Penelope calls the pair to make the offer, Peter Dinklage’s Lemon has the most visible character development of anyone in the film in the shortest amount of time. One moment he wants to expose Penelope, the next, he realizes the harm he has caused by treating her as a monster. 
    • Just as Penelope declares her independence from her mother, Max willingly walks away from the poker table. Both characters take massive steps toward their freedom and well-being, utterly independent of each other. This flips another romance trope on its head. Instead of bettering themselves for each other, they focus on their individual happiness. 
  • “They’re not running.” 
    • After Penelope’s parents track her down, Penelope has an episode, fainting at the pub and waking in a hospital room. Here she discovers that word has gotten out, and the public isn’t afraid of her. They love her. Remember that issue the critics had with the film? The detail that Penelope isn’t ugly at all, yet men would fling themselves out of windows to get away from her? It turns out, only high-society, well-bred blue bloods are the ones that do that. Maybe the film exaggerated their reactions to prove that perspective is essential and that tradition and bias can lead us to fear things we shouldn’t. 
    • Penelope’s popularity now poses a problem for Edward, as he has spent the entire film telling everyone that Penelope is grotesque and should be locked away. Edward’s father angrily tells him he needs to fix his mistake to put his name back in good standing. So, Edward decides to propose to Penelope. 
    • Jessica, Penelope’s mother, brings her daughter down again. She tells Penelope that she doesn’t have friends, she has fans, and that everyone only sees her as a talking pig. The only way to fix that is for her to marry Edward. So, Penelope reluctantly accepts. 
  • “Sure took you long enough.”
    • After seeing the proposal in the papers, Lemon checks in with Max Campion for an armed robbery story he heard from a colleague. However, it turns out that Max Campion is actually the hilarious, lovely, and adorable Nick Frost (those are all objective ways to describe him, don’t come at me). Lemon discovers that James McAvoy is playing Johnny Martin, the son of a plumber and former musician who fell victim to gambling addiction. Lemon just thought he was Max Campion because of a misunderstanding. 
    • Lemon tracks down Johnny and asks him why he won’t stop Edward from marrying Penelope. This is where the audience finally discovers that he turned down Penelope because he cannot break the curse, thus not giving her what she wants. So, he lets Penelope marry Edward. 
      • Attempting to undo the harm he’s caused, Lemon tries to stop the wedding by telling Jessica and Wanda (the matchmaker) about the whole scheme and Edward’s involvement. Wanda pleads with Jessica, begging her to stop the wedding now that they know why Max (Johnny) said no because he had to. Jessica refuses, rejecting another chance at redemption for her character. The only thing Jessica cares about is the curse, and not Penelope herself. 
  • I like myself the way I am.”
    • During the wedding vows, Penelope rejects Edward, realizing she can’t marry someone she doesn’t love just to break a curse. Jessica chases Penelope back into the house, begging her to go through with the wedding. Finally, Penelope declares that she doesn’t want to change because she accepts herself as she is. 
    • A rush of wind and magic knocks Penelope down, and she touches her face to find that the curse has been lifted. It turns out that one of her kind could be herself–she lifts the curse by loving who she is independent of anyone else.
      • Christina Ricci said in an interview: “You always fear when you’re making a movie that has a moral to the story that people are going to reject the idea of being taught a lesson. Or you worry that people are going to somehow feel that they’re being talked down to, or that it’s cheesy to make a movie that’s about self-acceptance.” The moral of Penelope is refreshing and ahead of its time. Sure, Penelope accepts who she is, but only after experiencing life for herself. Under the charge of her overbearing and critical mother, Penelope never even considered loving herself. She didn’t break the curse for or because of another person. It turns out that your opinion of yourself matters more than anyone else’s. 
    • And with the curse broken, Jessica has one last chance at redemption, realizing that if she had just accepted her daughter as she was, then the curse would never have been a problem. But, after a very short heart-to-heart, Jessica launches into her critical self again, suggesting that Penelope get a nose job. 
  • “It’s not the power of the curse; it’s the power you give the curse.”
    • During a narrated montage, we see Penelope move out of the home and start a job as a teacher (how?). We also learn that the butler is the witch that cast the curse generations ago, and she then removes Jessica’s voice before walking out on the family. 
    • Wanda alerts Penelope about Max/Johnny and updates her on why he rejected her proposal. So, she heads to the bar where he works for a Halloween party with Annie to confront him. Even though she’s wearing a pig mask (the Penelope costume is big this year), Johnny figures out who she is. The two embrace, and he’s surprised to see that the curse is broken. 
    • Now, the two of them can be together after growing and becoming complete independently. Neither one needs to fix or change the other, and they are free to start a relationship in a much healthier place than before. 

RECEPTION

  • Mark Palanski considered this film “low-budget” with only 15 million dollars. He enjoyed the challenge, as it meant that he had to do some creative problem-solving. Worldwide, Penelope pulled in only about $21 million, making back the budget but not enough money to be deemed a success.
  • We already mentioned the critical reception to this film, but it bears repeating. Critics hated Penelope. Or at least heavily disliked it. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said, “I can truthfully say that watching this abysmal fantasy-comedy is less rewarding than being slapped across the face with a large wet fish.” 
  • It was challenging to find positive reviews of the film written just after its release, but more recent reviews from independent sources tend to be more favorable. Maybe the world wasn’t ready to embrace Penelope in 2008. Would the film have done better today? 

Penelope is what Reese Witherspoon’s Type A Studio billed it to be. It’s a modern-day fairytale taking place in a surreal universe, with themes of love and acceptance. It employs classic tropes from the romance genre, but there’s a fun twist for every predictable plot. The film has a quirky and magical aesthetic, with a brilliant cast and an entertaining story. Sure, it’s not perfect, and critics had some valid concerns. But, just as Penelope’s blue blood suitors over-reacted to her charming nose, critics seemed a bit unfair to this film. It turns out that Penelope isn’t as hideous as they thought. 

SOURCES: 

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