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At the heart of the conflict is the mix of Anne and Mary's sisterhood and sibling rivalry. Having both bedded the King of England, can they kiss and make up? This being more a Masterpiece Theatre episode than a pay-TV romp à la The Tudors, it never leaves you in doubt that noble sentiment will win out over sexual intrigue, that hanky will trump panky. The resulting melange isn't awful, but you'll be forgiven if you wait for the DVDs of The Other Boleyn Girl this one and the TV movie for a leisurely home-viewing to compare and contrast.
Penelope, directed by Mark Palansky, is a Weekly World News headline "Aristocrat's Kid Born With Pig's Snout" turned into a fractured fairy tale. For the film's first (and best) few minutes, we are in the storybook realm of such deformed superheroes as Pinocchio, Cyrano de Bergerac and Edward Scissorhands. But the movie soon cozies into the princess-in-hiding genre that spawned It Happened One Night, Roman Holiday and dozens more. Penelope has been locked away at home, where her fretting, frittery parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard T. Grant) parade a retinue of potential husbands, all of whom are nauseated at the sight of her. Finally, in an attempt to define herself as something other than That Rich Little Piggy, she leaves home, and is trailed by a young man (James McAvoy, of Atonement fame) who is being paid to reveal her secret to the tabloids.
Actually, even with her porcine protuberance, Ricci looks pretty adorable. And with collagenized lips in vogue, why not a super snout as the latest fashion accessory? I could imagine Penelope on the cover of TIME, smiling and telling the world, "Yep, I'm Nosy."
But instant social acceptance of Penelope's defining characteristic wouldn't suit the social-outcast theme of Leslie Caveny's script. Penelope has been so scarred by the superficial way she's been judged that, when she goes into a local pub, she wears a kerchief across the middle of her face, forcing her to drink a glass of beer with a straw. Caveny also has a slew of sow jokes to subject us to. "Bad nose job," notes Reese Witherspoon, who shows up at the bar (and was one of the film's producers). And when Penelope gorges on Ho-Hos, her mother asks, "Oh, now you're just going to make a pig of yourself?" Penelope: "No, that's already been done for me." Et cetera.
Ricci is not asked to do much but coast on her dark, elfin star quality, which she manages nicely. In other adult roles, like the ones in Prozac Nation and Monster, she's worked hard to shrug off the ethereal girlishness of her Mermaids and Addams Family days. As for Johansson, the suspicion lingers that there was always a voluptuous woman waiting to burst out of her pre-teen roles. The few extra pounds she carries, in an era when curves are denounced as baby fat, give her the anachronistic, grown-up glamour of a Rita Hayworth. She photographs as mature beyond her years, which makes her a favorite of directors like Woody Allen and critics like me. But beneath my old-fashioned fan worship lies the suspicion that Johansson hasn't yet discovered the acting chops to match her shimmering sexuality.
That leaves Portman, who has looked stranded in some movies (her turn in The Phantom Menace was especially unfortunate), totally in control in others (do we thank Portman or Mike Nichols for her work in Closer?). It's odd that she plays the wanton Boleyn sister, and Johansson the more demure one, since there's always been a reticence to Portman, the need not to be mistaken for a naughty girl as if she doesn't realize that the best parts for women are bad girls. She holds back here too, in a part that demands that the stays be pulled out of the corset.
So this old admirer of these three ex-child stars renders a mixed verdict on their London tours. Penelope has no special reason to be, but Ricci gives it a comely sheen. Boleyn isn't the trashy, passionate soap opera it could have been. And as lovely as Hollywood's Lend-Lease program can be to attract financing for Anglo productions, I have to wonder whether a British actress or two couldn't be found to give the roles of Anne and Mary a little more delicacy, heft and craft.