The Favourite


Off with their heads!

(2018) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, James Smith, Mark Gatiss, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, Carolyn Saint-Pé, Edward Aczel, John Locke, William Dalby, Anthony Dougall, Emma Delves, Faye Daveney, Jennifer White, LillyRose Stevens, Denise Mack, Everal Walsh, James Melville, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Liam Fleming, Jenny Rainsford.  Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

Power often trickles down from the top, particularly in monarchies. Back when kings and queens ruled nearly everywhere, it was preferable to be close to the reigning monarch in order to wield enormous power. Often the King or Queen’s right hand funneled the information to the ruler with a decidedly slanted point of view and their influence often dictated policy. In some ways, it’s no different today.

In the era of Queen Anne (Colman) of England, that spot at her right hand was occupied by Sarah Churchill (Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough. With a war with France raging, Sarah had aligned herself with Minister of Finance Lord Godolphin (Smith) of the Tories who urged higher taxes to pay for the war, which not coincidentally was being waged by the Duke of Marlborough (Gatiss), Sarah’s husband. Opposing this is the Whigs led by Lord Richard Harley (Hoult) who mainly represented rural concerns who felt the greater brunt of the taxes as well as supplying the bulk of soldiers for the front.

While Kensington Palace where the Queen resided was blissfully insulated from the rest of England, into this atmosphere comes Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Stone) who was once a noblewoman who was eventually sold by her wastrel father to pay off gambling debts. Penniless, she hoped to find work in the Palace courtesy of her cousin.

A flare-up of the Queen’s painful and debilitating gout gives Abigail her opportunity to move up the ladder. Smart and resourceful, the new scullery maid knows how to make a concoction that can bring relief to the Queen’s condition. Grateful, Anne brings Abigail into her inner circle, much to Sarah’s consternation. The two cousins are well-aware of the other’s ambitious nature and as the two collide in a battle for the Queen’s affections, both women will stop at nothing to get what they want; Abigail to acquire power and Sarah to retain it.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos has already put together an impressive filmography which includes Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of Sacred Deer – and yes there are lobsters herein, briefly. This is easily his most accessible film to date but that doesn’t make this mainstream. Lanthimos has a habit of making his audience view things in a slightly oddball way, be it through a script that’s oddball or in this particular case, through unusual camera angles and lenses – period pieces as this one is generally tend to use fairly straightforward angles and standard lenses. Here we get Anne gong down a long corridor through a fish-eye lens, causing it to look like she’s rounding a turn or a scene of Abigail sitting against a wall with lush tapestries sitting so still you’d swear she was part of the tableaux.

The main attraction here are the stellar performances of the female leads, all of whom were nominated for Golden Globes with Colman nearly a shoo-in to get a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Both Weisz and Stone have Academy Awards already and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Colman will join them in that exclusive club. Her Anne is strident, a little bit mad, horribly lonely, and oddly vulnerable. She is a figure to be feared but also a figure to be pitied.

Both Abigail and Sarah are conniving, ruthless and devious. Stone and Weisz play them as very similar women but who have different ways of going about things. Sarah is one of the few who can tell the Queen the truth; Abigail is more of a flatterer but appeals to the Queen’s softer side. Both women also use the bedroom to help cement their relationships with the Queen – one of the more questionable facts of the movie which is loosely based on actual events – some historians have complained a bit too loosely but that’s par for the course.

The production design is magnificent and we get a real sense of living in the early 18th century in the mansions and palaces of the court. The costumes are also likely to get an Oscar nomination; the Whigs are foppishly dressed in elaborate powdered wigs and a slathering of make-up, whereas the Tories tend towards more 17th century dress with wigs of natural color and less flamboyant clothes (and no make-up). The look of the movie is as lush as any you’ll see this year.

While the comedy is ultimately fairly black, there is a melancholy that starts to spread into the film late in the second half that is intriguing. Sadly, Lanthimos allows the movie to go on a bit too long, leading to a surreptitious checking of watches by the audience. Some of the intrigue could have been cut back to make the movie a little more zippy.

This is one of the most critically praised movies of the year and anyone who loves the Oscars will need to keep this on their list of must-sees as it is likely to have a fair amount of nominations. A Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question either, although I found it not quite as entertaining as I would have liked personally. I also found the pacing a little wonky in places and some of the humor too dry for my taste.

There are a few anachronisms, not all of them obvious, but for the most part this is a strong Oscar contender that has three terrific performances, a nice dichotomy of tones and a gilded atmosphere that will delight the eye. As I said, essential viewing for Oscar watchers but perhaps when all is said and done, just short of being an essential film.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by the three leading ladies are all Oscar-worthy and all portraying strong women in their own way. The period is captured nicely with terrific production design and costuming.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit overpraised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of sexual content, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first time Colman has played a British monarch; she will also portray Queen Elizabeth II in the upcoming third season of The Crown, succeeding Claire Foy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Madness of King George
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Quake

Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z

Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter

The Patriot


The Patriot

Mel Gibson leads the charge against the Brits, disappointed he can’t paint his face blue here.

(2000) Historical Drama (Columbia) Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones, Logan Lerman, Mika Boorem. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

We often bandy about the term “patriotic” to imply our loyalty to our country. In reality, that has come to mean standing whenever the national anthem is played and making sure to cast our votes in each and every election. Most of us don’t even do that. There was a time, however, when being a patriot was dangerous; a man’s home, family and life were the collateral for his ideals.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has plenty of collateral. Although he mourns his recently deceased wife, he has seven wonderful children, a prosperous farm and as a hero of the French and Indian War, the respect and admiration of his community. However, the clouds of war brew on the horizon. The colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia are in full revolt against a tyrannical English king, and are soliciting support from the other colonies, many of whom have already given it. Martin’s South Carolina still debates the issue, but despite an impassioned plea by Martin to attempt other solutions (followed by a dire, Cassandra-esque warning that the war would be fought in the streets of their hometowns to be witnessed by their children), South Carolina chooses to fight for freedom. Martin chooses not to, but his passionate son Gabriel (Ledger) enlists in the Continental Army against his father’s wishes.

Two years pass. Lord Cornwallis (Wilkinson) has taken Charleston and as Martin predicted, the fighting is getting close to home. Following a skirmish in which Gabriel participates just outside the Martin farm, Martin and his household tend to the wounded on both sides. Into this scene of compassion canters the despicable Col. Tavington (Isaacs), who orders the wounded Colonials shot, Gabriel arrested and hung as a spy (for carrying dispatches on his person), the house torched and the livestock killed. In the ensuing pandemonium, Martin’s second-oldest son Thomas is shot before the horrified gaze of his family by Tavington, who sneers “Stupid boy!” in his best Snidely Whiplash fashion, and then gallops off, leaving Thomas to die in his father’s arms.

The despicable colonel forgets one of life’s basic rules (or at least one of the basic rules of 90s movies); don’t mess with Mel Gibson (you’d think the Brits would have learned that after Braveheart). He and his two remaining sons carry off a daring rescue of Gabriel, whereupon the elder Martin enlists himself and takes charge of a South Carolina militia whose job is to occupy Cornwallis and keep him from marching north to finish off George Washington. The militiamen do this at great cost, as Tavington carries out atrocity after atrocity.

This isn’t going to play very well in England, as the English here are portrayed as either sadistic, vain, arrogant and/or somewhat stupid. That’s OK, though; this is really our story, although ironically it’s being told by Roland Emmerich, the German director of Independence Day and Godzilla.

The battle scenes are terrifying, as armies get nose to nose and muzzle to muzzle, firing at point blank range at each other, standing in a line and praying that the volley of musket fire will pass them by, all the while cannonshot take the arms, legs and heads off of hapless soldiers in the front ranks. The violence and brutality are excessive at times, but the carnage is necessary to place in context the bravery of farmers, untrained in war, standing in the face of devastating British muskets firing with deadly accuracy into their ranks. Gibson is solid, though his performance is less compelling than in Braveheart, to which this will inevitably be compared. Here, he is a rough-hewn man with a dangerous temper boiling beneath the surface. Ledger is terrific – this was the performance that established him in Hollywood after success in his native Australia.

The Patriot is a bit over-the-top in places, and a bit predictable in others, leading to a half-star penalty. Be warned; this is a gut-wrenching, emotional movie. Da Queen rated it five hankies and there was a lot of snuffling going on in the packed theater in which we saw “The Patriot.” Da Queen was red-eyed hours after the movie was over.

The Patriot reminds us of the sacrifices that were made to give this country life. Men gave of life and limb, watched sons, fathers, brothers and friends perish, left their homes and families to exist in brutal conditions with the Continental army, and often watched their life’s work go up in smoke. Too often, we forget the commitment that created the liberty we cherish. That’s just the first step in losing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense battle sequences. Gibson is at his best here. Ledger makes a big splash in his debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turns the Redcoats into Storm Troopers. Fudges on the facts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of war violence here, some of it quite graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The house used as Aunt Charlotte’s (Richardson) plantation was the same one used as the residence of Forrest Gump. Benjamin Martin has seven children, the same number Mel Gibson had at the time of filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real people these fictional characters were based on and the lengths the movie went to for historical accuracy in terms of uniforms and so on (it’s a shame they couldn’t have been more accurate in terms in more important places).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.3M on a $110M production budget; the movie broke even in it’s theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Magic Mike

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

The 18th century version of Dirty Dancing.

(DreamWorks) Ben Whishaw, Alan Rickman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, John Hurt (voice), Sam Douglas, Karoline Herfurth. Directed by Tom Tykwer

Obsessions are destructive. They can lead us into temptation, directly into harm’s way, into the path of a freaking school bus. Obsession is the madness that whispers to us in the night, promising all manner of pleasures but in the end delivering only sackcloth and ashes.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born to a fishwife, a woman who paused only a moment to allow her birthing to slip out of her into the pile of fishguts and offal that lay below her stand at the fish market in 18th century Paris before resuming her chopping of cod.

Through a rather charmless set of circumstances the young Grenouille winds up an orphan, but he’s not just any kid. He has a marvelously developed sense of smell, able to distinguish the most subtle of fragrances from miles away. Somewhat ironically, he also has no scent of his own, which further creates the impressions among those who live with him that there’s something sinister about young Grenouille…and they’re right.

He goes to work for a tanner and finds himself luxuriating in the rich smells, the stink that is Paris. Grenouille yearns to have a scent of his own, one that will fill people with such longing and desire that they won’t be able to help themselves; they must love him. One evening while delivering some hides in the city, he encounters a young girl selling plums (Herfurth) and becomes intoxicated by her smell. He is so entranced that he can’t bear to be away from her. She, quite understandably, thinks he’s a lunatic stalker and is terrified of him. He tries to muffle her screams and winds up smothering the life from her. As she dies, her scent dissipates driving Grenouille nearly mad with frustration. However, he manages to slip away before being discovered.

Some nights later he delivers some hides to a perfumer named Baldini (Hoffman) who’s seen better days. To Hoffman’s astonishment, Grenouille turns out to have the best nose of any man he’s ever met; he merely lacks the education to become a great perfumer on his own. Hoffman arranges to buy Grenouille’s contract from the tanner and Grenouille becomes his apprentice.

Baldini teaches him most of what Grenouille needs to know to distill perfume on his own; in return, Grenouille gives Baldini enough perfume formulas to make Baldini rich for many years to come (although it doesn’t turn out that way). Grenouille then makes his way to Grasse, the center of the French perfume industry. There he becomes enamored of a young girl (Hurd-Wood) whose father (Rickman) suspects that there is a serial killer in their midst.

That’s because there is; Grenouille has embarked on a twisted, vicious plan to distill the essence of beauty and for that he will need beautiful young girls who unfortunately must die in order for their essence to be properly extracted. He needs 13 of them and the young girl will be his 13th; can he be stopped before he finishes his plan?

This is based on the excellent Patrick Susskind novel “Parfum” which the novelist thought unfilmable; even though producer Bernd Eichenger is a personal friend of the author, he was reluctant to give the film rights to anybody, even his friend. However, German wunderkind director Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) is just the man to undertake such a venture.

What we get is something of a mixed bag. This is in many ways an unpleasant film to watch; Tykwer not only captures the squalor of 18th century Paris, he wallows in it as he does in the twisted desires of the protagonist. To a very real degree I felt grimy after watching this to the point where I felt an urge to take a shower.

However, that does not a bad film make. Whishaw, who is appealing in Bright Star, has a very unlovable character here, and yet he makes him compelling. He gets fine support from Rickman and Hoffman, whose crucial but relatively small role lights up the movie for the short time he’s in it.

Tykwer does a yeoman job in re-creating the 18th century France, both the rural Grasse and the urban Paris. He also carries out the near impossible – making a movie that is very largely about fragrance, a sense that cinema doesn’t utilize, and making it work. It can be hard to watch in places, particularly some of the later scenes, but for the most part this is a unique, compelling work that is different enough to be worth your checking out.

WHY RENT THIS: The film captures the squalor of 18th century France very nicely. It is certainly different than most of the thrillers you’ll see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very, very twisted and difficult to watch in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, mayhem, gore, a whole lot of nudity and some truly shocking and revolting images. Parents, keep your kids away from this DVD!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Paris, the movie was filmed in Barcelona which the producers felt looked much more like 18th century France.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Despicable Me