After floundering in distribution hell since its debut at the Toronto film fest in 2006, Penelope, an offbeat romantic fairytale, is finally coming to theaters. I'm delighted for director Mark Polansky, the film's director, who is finally seeing his charming debut feature come to light. This must also be a relief for Reese Witherspoon, who makes her executive-producing debut with the film ( and also has a very funny cameo in it ) and the movie's star, Christina Ricci, who gives an endearing performance in the title role. Together, this trio, along with a cute script by Leslie Caveny ( also making her feature debut ) , sumptuous production design ( on an indie budget ) and a top-flight cast ( James McAvoy and a crack group of comedic actors including Catherine O'Hara, Peter Dinklage and Richard E. Grant ) deliver a Tim Burtonesque comedy that offers audiences a modern-day update of the classic ugly-duckling story.
( Pictured ) Natalie Portman ( left ) and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl.
The movie, which literally begins with a 'Once upon a time … ' screen crawl, focuses on little Penelope, who is under a curse placed on a male ancestor who angered a witch. Unlike all the male heirs in the old-money Wilhern family line, Penelope—as the first female—is born with a pig snout. Removing the snout will kill her, so her mother, Jessica ( O'Hara ) , and father, Franklin ( Grant ) , reluctantly fake her death and raise her within the walls of their mansion—and only a suitor with blue blood who loves Penelope, nose and all, can end the curse. But when a tenacious reporter ( Dinklage ) learns from one such prospect that Penelope is still alive, he hatches a plan to get a photo of the pig girl. The reporter finds McAvoy, a blue blood ( who has a gambling problem and is in need of cash ) to become her reluctant suitor. But soon Penelope, stifled by her mother's overbearing love and protective instincts and other emotional setbacks, determines to get out into the Big Bad World and sniff things out for herself.
Once Penelope ventures beyond the walls of home, the story kicks into high gear and, after becoming a tabloid princess and finding a new best friend—the tough, no-nonsense, Vespa-riding Annie ( Witherspoon ) —Penelope's story becomes as much a tale of girl empowerment ( fans of Wicked will recognize Penelope as one of their own ) as a quest for romance.
Ricci, who has played misfits stretching back to little Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family, pictures has a sure feel for her poor little rich girl role. O'Hara, who somehow manages to be shrill and funny at once, is bliss as always in a large part. McAvoy, who has risen to become a heartthrob with the recent Atonement, brings the requisite leading man good looks and charm ( especially in a scene in which he tries to getPenelope to guess which musical instrument he plays while taking a turn at all of them ) .
Penelope is a sweet trifle, a great kid's movie, and not surprising, given its subject matter a film gay audiences will find familiar and comforting. That's because, more than anything, Penelope is a story of acceptance of one's true self—in other words, it's a coming-out story.
When I saw that Peter Morgan—who penned the exquisite, densely layered scripts for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland—had adapted The Other Boleyn Girl from the novel by Philippa Gregory, I assumed that his work would have an equal measure of historical fact and detail along with plenty of juicy trivia. Well, it's juicy, alright, and has plenty of history, but the end result is much more like a Barbara Cartland romance novel—right down to the purple prose. But that's not to say that The Other Boleyn Girl isn't a ripping good time—it is. It's just very old-fashioned, a true bodice ripper—a catfight over a single tom dressed up in Renaissance faire drag.
The luscious Boleyn sisters—Mary ( Scarlett Johansson ) , the open-mouthed innocent with her blond tresses, and Anne ( Natalie Portman ) , the older, coquettish one with her brunette locks—are devoted to each other until a competition for the affections of the lusty King Henry VII ( Eric Bana ) takes center stage. The story really is a romance novel brought to life—complete with a hunky, shirtless Bana ( and many more shirtless scenes would have been appreciated ) quickly bedding the compliant Mary and, just as quickly, tossing her away after being hypnotized with lust by the unfulfilled promise that Anne, the more experienced temptress, tantalizes him with. Bana—who does nothing in the movie but bed wenches— nearly commands, 'My loins cry out for sweet release!'
A melodramatic sibling rivalry plays out between this pair of real-life Banger Sisters over Bana that involves their entire family ( including their gay brother, George ) and there's lots of hambone dialogue in the 'Sister, I shall take sweet revenge for this act of gross betrayal!' vein as this pretentious and 'literary' movie moves towards its inevitable conclusion. In an earlier era this would have starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins ( and they actually did two like it—The Old Maid and Old Acquaintance ) and, in its way, The Other Boleyn Girl is just as trashy and enjoyable.
Also opening this week is The Counterfeiters, the engrossing, true story of Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch ( Karl Markovics ) , Germany's greatest counterfeiter and a Russian Jew, who was ordered, along with fellow prisoners while interned in a concentration camp, to make phony money that the Nazis could use to continue financing the war effort and to hopefully ruin the international economy. It's yet another gripping story that as it proceeds to point out the many ironic, unbelievable contrasts of daily life inside a death camp. Subtitled.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.