So, in full understanding that talking about a movie only ten years old barely scrapes the surface of what can be called “nostalgia,” I can’t turn down the opportunity to evangelize a wonderful, criminally-underrated movie, Penelope.
**Warning that there are light spoilers below for a movie whose enjoyment does not hinge on knowing how it is going to pan out.**
It is a fairy tale about a young woman from a wealthy family, Penelope (Christina Ricci) who–because of a family curse–is born with the nose of a pig. Her parents (the always-amazing-in-everything Catherine O’Hara and Richard E Grant) lock her away because they think her “ugliness” (more on that later) is going to bring shame to their family.
Side note: The bedroom they lock her away in is quite amazing, filled with all of Penelope’s artistic creations (I want her bedroom, the design elements of every scene are just fantastic).
But even a gorgeous prison is still a prison and Penelope wants freedom. Family legend says the curse will only be broken once someone of equal noble birth –a “blue blood” — declares that they love her. Her mother decides the most efficient way to do this is to offer an outrageous dowry, and then interview noble young men until one of them can look beyond Penelope’s nose and agree to marry her. It’s a swell plan based on an assumption that her daughter’s quick marriage will solve all her own problems, and it works just…horribly. Men jumping out windows, sprinting away. Penelope must look horrible (more later). Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage, being just the best) wants to know what’s going on and sends in a gambling addict, Johnny (James McAvoy) under cover as one of the suitors in order to get Penelope’s photo.
And thus our reverse Beauty and the Beast story begins. The ridiculously-handsome James McAvoy falls in love with the “ugly” Penelope, but when the inevitable conflict between them arises, she escapes out into the world: making friends (including Annie, played by Reese Witherspoon, one of the movie’s producers), declaring her own freedom, and winning the day for herself. It’s a beautiful movie. The costuming, the directing, the set direction, the music — all create a magical world that is both a fairy tale and a modern story at the same time. Even the villains are likable (with the exception of one evil suitor played by Simon Woods), and it is a cheery, cute movie of independence and quirky spunk. I recommend it highly.
If there’s one monumentally glaring problem with this movie: Penelope’s appearance. The story and the script are based around one immensely important fact for the believably of the movie: Penelope is supposed to be hideous. Almost every character mentions it at some point. And yet…
Hideous, huh? Just nightmarish ugly. I could never in a million years imagine agreeing to a fortune if I had to spend time with that.
Yep. Awful. (But see what I was saying about her bedroom? It’s stunning.)
So, jokes aside, there is the undeniable fact that in this Beauty and the Beast reverse fairy tale, the “Beast” is actually undeniably gorgeous already.
**Moment of self-promotion: if you’re interested in a reverse B&B retelling where the man falls for an actually ugly woman, we wrote a book on that premise.**
In order to continue to love this movie where beautiful people continue to end up with beautiful people because they’re beautiful, the head-canon interpretation I’ve gone with (and I’ve read zero interviews with directors, writers, or producers because I don’t want to be proven wrong), is that her already-existing beauty is the entire point.
Her parents and society as a whole fixate on ONE aspect of her appearance, and then make it define her as a person. And she’s taught to feel shame and hate that one aspect of herself her entire life, telling her over and over that if she didn’t have that ONE THING, she would be lovable. And that, with that ONE THING, she is a monster who is unworthy of love. The whole movie therefore doesn’t actually hinge on beauty, or the lack of it, or about nice noses or pig noses, or being a fat pig or a gorgeous woman, but on the ultimate discovery that we are the sum of our parts. And that everyone deserves to be loved by at least one person: themselves.