The smell of success

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer compensates for a lack of smell by giving the audience a lavish visual extravaganza while Miss Potter, a biopic of writer Beatrix, is just too sweet to hit the spot. By Declan Burke 


Based on Patrick Süskind's best-selling novel, Das Parfum, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (15A) is an unusual film in that it's a mainstream attempt to portray a serial killer sympathetically. Even more daring, however, is its attempt to capture through film what is the most unfilmable of all the human senses, that of smell. Born into the poverty-stricken squalor of pre-revolutionary/images/village/people/smell.jpg Paris, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) grows up to realise that his sense of smell is unparalleled. An apprenticeship with a renowned perfumer, Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), offers the young man an opportunity to escape his lowly beginnings, a position in which he excels.

But even as he garners a reputation as something of a genius when it comes to perfume, Jean-Baptiste finds himself haunted by the pursuit of the only smell that remains beyond even his ability to recreate: the scent of the human soul. So begins the career of a callous serial killer, a man who ruthlessly murders women for their smell. But even as the story unfolds and the true horror of Jean-Baptiste's obsession becomes clear, it's impossible not to feel some sympathy for a man deranged by the bewildering cornucopia available to him at the flare of a nostril. Whishaw has very little to do in terms of dialogue, his portrayal of a gentle monster very much conveyed through the intensity of his presence and the power of his eyes. This performance, particularly when Whishaw is pitched against veterans of the stature of Hoffman and Alan Rickman, is something of an acting masterclass. To compensate for the absence of smell in the film, director Tom Twyker offers a lavish visual extravaganza in which the screen seems almost to palpitate with colour and texture, regardless of whether Jean-Baptiste is mired down in the rat-infested backstreets of Paris or wandering the high hills in the South of France. A cinema-lover's treat, Perfume drifts into the realms of the farcical at the finale, when Twyker's fidelity to the fabulous nature of the novel backfires in its depiction of a ludicrous Bacchanalian orgy. Until then, however, Perfume is a magical experience. 

Equally delightful is Miss Potter (G), a gentle and undemanding biopic of the much-loved children's author, Beatrix Potter (played here by Renee Zellweger), the creator of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck et al. Unfortunately, it's a little too magical: Potter's life, with the exception of a single blemish, seems to have been a comfortable middle-class existence largely untrammeled by grief or tragedy, and the lack of obstacles the author has to overcome means that her story isn't actually all that interesting. Zellweger portrays Potter as something of a reluctant feminist whose talent causes her to become something of an accidental success, with Ewan McGregor and Emily Watson providing strong support, although it's Chris Seager's dramatic depictions of the Lake District that quietly steal the show. Pleasant, charming and relentlessly feelgood,Miss Potter is too winsomely sweet to convince as an authentic biography.Perfume: The Story of a Murderer ****Miss Potter ***