I once heard Tykwer say that for each of his films he starts with a still image in his mind, and uses it throughout the film. With Run, Lola, Run, that image was obviously a girl running. I can only assume that for this one, it was a bloke sniffing, for this is the story of Jean-Baptise Grenouille, a man with an extraordinary sense of smell.
Ben Whishaw (most famous for appearing in TV's Nathan Barley) plays the main character, who starts out life in 18th Century France as a poor unfortunate scamp in an orphanage. His impressive hooter is his only friend and he is sold to a Parisian tannery as soon as he is old enough, where he is again treated pretty badly. He works hard and patiently bides his time though, until he has the chance to convince a local perfume maker (Dustin Hoffman) to take him on as his apprentice.
The film actually opens with scenes from Grenouille's trial and execution, leaving no doubt as to where his dark journey is going to take him. It seems that once Grenouille has learned to distinguish good smells from bad, he finds he particularly enjoys the smell of girl. He sets out on a journey to discover how he can preserve the natural scent of a lady, bottle it and use it to create the ultimate perfume.
Unfortunately, his method of experimenting with various scent-capturing techniques usually involves killing said lady, because that way they tend to be a lot more cooperative and receptive to being boiled up or having their souls distilled.
Whishaw plays his character very well indeed, and his facial acting is fascinating to watch. He carries himself almost as though his character is mentally retarded, and even goes as far as to speak in a slightly crude and moronic way, but the intelligence and passion of his character is made abundantly clear through his movement and facial expressions.
The film as a whole has an underlying tone of menace, falling somewhere on my dark-o-meter between The Prestige and Pan's Labyrinth. There are some unpleasant and disgusting scenes, but most of the murders are dealt with fairly subtly, reflecting the character's workmanlike approach to accomplishing his goal.
The film as a whole is fascinating, slightly fantastical, faintly sexual and very well executed. It is a little bit voiceover heavy, but that is a hazard of adapting a novel, especially one in which the protagonist doesn't speak very much. Overall, though, I am heartily recommending this unusual and enthralling tale.