Adapted from Patrick Süskind's best-selling novel of the same name (15m copies sold worldwide), 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer' is an example of a film that ideally should have never left the printed page.
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw) is born in the filthy streets of an 18th Century Parisian fish market. Left to perish by his mother, a massive cry from the newborn simultaneously saves his life and condemns her to a death by hanging. It turns out she is not the last woman to lose her life as a result of his actions.
Aside from his grand set of lungs, we soon find that the boy also possesses a uniquely powerful sense of smell. Despite growing up in deplorable conditions, Grenouille survives to enjoy an encounter with perfumer Baldini (Hoffman). Baldini dismisses the youth's interest in scents at first, but soon realises that the scruffy lad's extraordinary nose could reverse the fortunes of his ailing business.
The tenuous relationship is good for them both, but eventually the apprentice outgrows his master and sets off to Grasse (the centre of the perfumery universe) to expand his olfactory experiences. On his trek through France's Massif Central, he realises he has no odour himself, which spells disaster for beautiful women in the town he is destined for. The scent of one girl in particular, Laura Richis (Hurd-Wood), captures the wanderer's nostrils. When several young women turn up dead in the town, her protective single father Antoine (Rickman) is convinced that his only daughter is in grave danger and does everything he can think of to keep her alive.
Süskind's novel was first published in 1985 and is the second most successful German novel ever behind Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. The film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, tried to buy the rights way back then, but it took over 15 years (and a reported €10m) for the German writer to be convinced that this book, which many considered unfilmable, could be translated successfully to the screen.
Earlier this year, 'A Cock and Bull Story' took a stab at Laurence Sterne's 18th Century novel 'Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'. That literary piece was also considered unfilmable. The makers circumvented this belief by employing the loosest of loose adaptations.
On this project, director Tom Tykwer and co-screenplay writers Andrew Birkin and the aforementioned Eichinger have remained pretty loyal to the original text. The sets, locations (many of which were around the Barcelona area of northeast Spain), cinematography and costumes do evoke certain aromas.
The casting is also spot-on. Hoffman and Rickman were apparently first-choice for their respective roles. Whishaw is excellent as the almost autistic outsider, and Hurd-Wood brings the right mixture of freshness and maturity to her role.
It is rare that a movie can get so many things right and still end up on the wrong side. Viewers who have not read the novel may well be inspired to do so, as throughout you get the feeling that there is a lot of the book that did not, or perhaps could not, make the cut.
This production's primary flaw is that it is a movie that simply did not need to made. Patrick Süskind certainly seemed to think so.