Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci) is a pretty young woman from a wealthy family. What sets her apart is that she has the ears and nose of a pig.
Generations ago, an embittered and vengeful witch (Michael Feast) placed a curse on the Wilhern family after their son had an affair with her daughter, one of the Wilhern servants, and, talked out of marrying her by his arrogant and disapproving family, abandoned her and married someone of his own status. The heartbroken and pregnant servant girl then threw herself off a cliff. Furious, the witch then cursed the Wilherns so that the next daughter to be born into the affluent family would have the face of a pig. For five generations, the Wilherns produced only sons, until Penelope was born with her ugly face, stricken with the curse. It is said that the curse can only be lifted if 'one of her own kind' learns to love her, which her parents interpret as meaning that Penelope must marry a man of noble birth.
A tabloid reporter named Lemon (Peter Dinklage) begins stalking the family to get a photograph of the infant Penelope resulting in Penelope's mother Jessica (Catherine O'Hara) blinding his right eye after he breaks into their house. Then Jessica and Franklin (Richard E. Grant) decide to fake their daughter's death and cloister her away in their mansion where Penelope spends her life immersing herself in intellectual pursuits such as literature, horticulture, and music. When Penelope becomes an adult, her parents attempt to introduce her to possible suitors, hoping that one of them will fall in love with her and break the curse, with the help of a matchmaker named Wanda (Ronni Ancona). Unfortunately, every man who lays eyes on her flees in terror, including Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (Simon Woods), a spoiled, arrogant snob who finds her repulsive. Normally, Jessica and Franklin's butler Jake (also Michael Feast) catches them before they leave, but he fails to catch Vanderman.
Vanderman's panicked flight from the Wilhern house results in a newspaper article dubbing him insane. To redeem his name, Vanderman decides to team up with Lemon (who is now wearing an eyepatch over his right eye) in an effort to get a photograph of Penelope. The two of them track down Max Campion (James McAvoy), a young blue blood disowned by his family because of his gambling problem and in desperate need of money. Lemon and Vanderman pay Max to pose as a new suitor for Penelope, hiding a camera in his jacket so that he can steal a picture of her. After talking to Penelope through a one-way mirror, Max is unexpectedly caught off guard by her sweetness and charm, and Penelope also trusts him enough to show him her face. Though Max is not frightened of Penelope, he accidentally triggers the camera in his jacket, which causes him to retreat.
A heartbroken Penelope believes that Max too finds her monstrous and instead begs him to marry her simply for her status and in order to break the curse, even promising to kill herself if the marriage doesn't break the curse. Max, though obviously torn, insists that he cannot marry Penelope. He then calls off his agreement with Lemon and Vanderman and destroys the camera, realizing that their attempt to exploit Penelope is wrong.
Meanwhile, Penelope, inspired by Max's conversations about the outside world, decides to flee the protection of her parents' home, and journeys out into the city, naive and ignorant about normal life. She uses a scarf to cover her face. Penelope's courage in going out to the world then acts as an inspiration for Max, who quits gambling and starts work in an old theatre. While at a bar, Penelope ends up befriending a delivery girl named Annie (Reese Witherspoon) who becomes her "real world" mentor and best friend. Having no money and seeing that Lemon and Vanderman are offering a reward for a photograph of her, she decides to collect on the reward by producing a photo of herself. When her parents see Penelope, she runs from them and then passes out in the bar that Annie is in causing Penelope's scarf to be removed. To her surprise, Penelope becomes an overnight celebrity, flocked by adoring fans who are not disgusted by her face.
Meanwhile, Vanderman's father Edward Vandermann II (Nigel Havers), seeing the public's fondness for Penelope and embarrassed by his son's vocal cruelty toward her, coerces Edward into proposing to the girl. Lemon eventually discovers that the man he and Vanderman recruited to photograph Penelope is not Max Campion, but actually another man named Johnny Martin who took the job for money while the real Campion (Nick Frost) is in jail. On Penelope's wedding day, he provides the information to Jessica and Wanda. Though Wanda wants to tell Penelope the truth, Jessica forces her to keep it a secret, believing that Edward is Penelope's only chance to break the curse. Penelope nearly marries him, but backs out of the wedding at the last minute when she realizes that she does not want to marry simply to break the curse. Though Penelope's mother urges her to marry Vanderman and at last lead a 'normal life', an exasperated Penelope says that she likes herself the way she is. This breaks the curse, as Penelope has at last been loved by 'one of her own kind' – herself – and her pig snout and ears disappear.
As the months pass, Penelope moves on with her life, becoming a horticulturist and teacher, and the spectacle of her former appearance is gradually forgotten by the public even when the news of a gorilla boy being found in a laundry hamper eclipses it. After he quits his job after 25 years, Jake is revealed to be the witch who had cursed the family long ago and renders Jessica unable to speak with magic. After realizing that Jessica can no longer speak, Wanda breaks down and tells Penelope about Johnny Martin. That Halloween, Penelope finds several of her students dressing up as her old pig self, and dons a "Penelope" mask as she goes to reunite with Johnny, who she discovers lives nearby. Johnny, not knowing that the curse has been broken, kisses Penelope and apologizes to her, saying that he does not have the power to break the curse. Penelope then reveals that she had the power to lift the curse all along, and the two share a passionate kiss, beginning a romantic relationship.
In the final scenes, Penelope tells her story to a group of children in a park-like area. After the children are dismissed, Johnny and Penelope walk up the hill to a swing, where he is seen happily pushing her. Meanwhile, on a nearby lake, Lemon rows up in a small rowboat and is about to take a picture revealing to the world what has happened to Penelope. Observing their happiness, Lemon decides to leave them alone as he rows away.
The production of Penelope started in 2006 in London and Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire. It premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. It was also Reese Witherspoon's first film in a producing role along with a small acting role.
The film's screenplay was written by Leslie Caveny. A novelization of the film was written by Marilyn Kaye.
The finished film was caught in limbo for over a year. Originally purchased by The Weinstein Company and IFC Films, it was removed from the release date schedule and eventually dropped by the two studios. Summit Entertainment eventually picked up United States distribution rights.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film 53% based on 127 reviews. The site's consensus reads "Though Penelope has a charming cast and an appealing message, it ultimately suffers from faulty narrative and sloppy direction." Metacritic gives the film a weighted average rating of 48%, based on 29 reviews — indicating mixed or average reviews.
The film premiered September 8, 2006 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007. The film opened in Russia and Ukraine in August 2007. Penelope was released in the United Kingdom on February 1, 2008. It opened in wide release in the United States and Canada on February 29, 2008.
The film opened in ninth place and earned $3.8 million USD on its opening weekend in the United States.
By October 5, 2008, the film had grossed $20.8 million worldwide—with $6.5 million in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Malta.
Penelope was released on July 15, 2008 in the United States. It included a 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. The extras were a behind-the-scenes featurette, cast and crew, production notes and world-premiere features from the upcoming Summit film Twilight as well as behind-the-scenes features and interviews from the film, released four months later. Only the German Blu-Ray version of the film, released in 2011, carries the fully 104 minute version of the film. US and UK releases of the film are all the edited 88/89 minute cut.
Joby Talbot composed the music for the film. A soundtrack album was released.