Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer

Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Whenever I review a film adapted from a book I strive to treat the two as separate entities, acknowledging that each medium suits slightly different stories and interpretations thereof. In some instances, however, it's harder than in others. Patrick Susskind's Perfume is widely considered a work of genius, soaring in its themes, beautifully constructed and elegantly written. People have been trying for years to bring it to the big screen; now at last it has arrived, and a great deal about it is worthy of great praise, yet it is so clumsily put together that to admire it requires anybody who has read the book to fall in love with an odour of chrysanthmums after having known the fresh scent of a rose.

Perfume is the story of a boy born in Paris in the latter part of the 18th century; a boy with no personal body odour and a genius of a nose. Young Grenouille at first meanders through life seeking merely to escape the cruelty of his circumstances, but by and large, as he discovers new smells, he becomes obsessed by the notion of possessing them, and his attempt to do so, with the awareness of power which it brings, leads to horrific crimes and still more painful disappointment with the world.

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Ben Whishaw is superb in this central role, demonstrating his character's complexity and cleverness without ever making the mistake of seeming educated or refined. Unfortunately, the director doesn't seem to realise this, and so he is saddled with a heavy-handed voice-over from John Hurt (utterly miscast) which continually tells the audience how to interpret events. This crushes the ambiguity vital to any gothic tale and utterly sentimentalises what ought to be grim, depriving the story of much of its humour.

Similarly out of place, though less directly problematic, are the several instances of sanitisation, probably for the American market. Grenouille's victims are all slightly older than they were in the book (a factor which does matter to the plot); in an orgy scene there are plenty of straight couples and lesbian couples but only two gay male ones, briefly glimsped engaged in studiously tame behaviour; and when a merchant eats lunch with his teenage daughter there is only one glass of wine on the table. Details, yet indicative nonetheless of an attitude quite at odds which the nature of the story which, even for newcomers, fails to convince.

All of this is a shame because in certain other ways Perfume is a real treasure. Brilliantly designed sets and costumes quickly immerse the viewer in Grenouille's world, making a considerable contribution to our understanding of the characters who inhabit it. Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman give charming performances in supporting roles and Rachel Hurd-Wood is almost perfect as the imperilled Laura. There are some superb bits of camerawork used to communicate Grenouille's experience of the world of scents, though unfortunately, having begun to express itself this way, the film doesn't have quite enough to go round. What it really needs is a director willing to step further outside the bounds of the familiar - sometimes it looks as if it's trying to emulate Ken Russell or Jocelyn Moorhouse, yet it never quite achieves that edge.

If Perfume still tempts you, I have three pieces of advice. Leave five minutes before the end (once the activities in the square are over). Read the book first (lest it be spoiled for you). And wait for the director's cut. There is a much better film in here just bursting to get out.

Reviewed on: 27 Nov 2006
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Capturing scents in 18th century France can be a deadly business.
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Chris ***1/2

Director: Tom Tykwer

Writer: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer, based on the novel by Patrick Süskind

Starring: Ben Wishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Simon Chandler, David Calder, Richard Felix, Birgit Minichmayr, Andres Herrera

Year: 2006

Runtime: 147 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany/France/Spain

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