If you had to lose one of your senses, which would it be? This is the sort of question people specualte over in the pub from time to time, and of course it's only ever asked by people who haven't been there, people who can't really imagine that kind of loss. Most say they'd be willing to give up their sense of smell. It doesn't seem all that important. And that's what happens to the people in Perfect Sense, all of a sudden, all at once.

What we forget is that smell, whilst it might not be important in navigating day to day routines, matters in subtle ways. A lot of what it does is subconscious. It can change our moods, trigger memories, help us to communicate with one another. Without smell, nothing tastes right. This is particularly frustrating for a chef like Michael (Ewan McGregor), who must find imaginative ways to keep food appealing to diners. It helps that he's generally imaginative. he has to be, to keep finding ways of escaping from commitments. There's a trail of angry ex-girlfriends behind him and now he's set his sights on Susan (Eva Green), also too good for him, also drawn to his charm, but made of tougher stuff.


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Susan is an epidemiologist. She's close to the heart of it all, trying to track the progress of this mysterious disease. Michael is a welcome distraction, especially after people start losing their sense of taste completely, and have to face the probability that there is worse to come.

Set entirely within urban Glasgow and focused on the minutiae of everyday lives rather than on sweeping apocalyptic visions, this is a film whose sense of intimacy is its most devastating means of conveying the horror of plague. Susan and Michael make compelling protagonists, intelligent enough to be interesting guides but with, despite the former's job, no special insights or abilities. If anybody is organising to try and survive what may come, they don't know about it. Like the stranded tourists of One Hundred Mornings, they try their best just to get on with things, to avoid worrying about what they cannot change. In the background we see people who have had sensory disabilities for longer trying to help those who are new to it; there's an awareness here that's missing from many such tales, a more astute take on how disability and society interact.

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Within this is a love story; simple, unsurprising, yet convincing. McEwan is getting better and better with age, showing that he's now interested in being more than just a star, whilst Green is one of the most underrated talents of her generation. Their chemistry is convincing despite the sense of numbness often present in the film. There's a suggestion that, as we fall in love, we grow numb to the rest of the world, our senses overwhelmed by one another. But there are ambiguities here. Are our protagonists really in love, or is their course shaped by the disease? The ending, which recalls Robert Henryson's Testament Of Cresseid, might be interpreted as a triumph of romance or as something much, much bleaker.

Perfect Sense is far from a perfect film. Some bits of camerawork are so appallingly bad that it's shocking they made it into the final cut (though there are also scenes when cinematographer Giles Nuttgens really gets the best out of the 5D in fantastic tight, fluid takes). The necessity of keeping it simple means that some viewers will be frustrated by how much we don't see. The comedy is sharp; the romance, in places, just a little too slow. But overall it's a fine effort that explores a challenging subject with unusual dignity.

Reviewed on: 02 Aug 2011
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A chef and an epidemiologist fall in love, just as the world is falling apart.
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Read more Perfect Sense reviews:

Amber Wilkinson **1/2
Merlin Harries **


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