Apparently, the novel that this film was adapted from was a bit of a hit back in 1985. It sadly passed me by, but in my defence I was only seven years old, and my literary tastes hadn’t developed that much further beyond The Famous Five and Asterix — so, I may not have been much of a wordsmith but at least I could be casually racist and pun in Latin.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born with a superhuman sense of smell, able to detect the odours of not just organics but metals and minerals as well. Uneducated, illiterate and with almost no usable vocabulary, Grenouille eventually becomes apprenticed to Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a once-famous perfumer now past his prime, and learns the technicalities and theory of how to construct a perfume.

While Baldini’s mind is focused only on the profit to be gained from using Grenouille’s abilities to create new, unique perfumes, Grenouille is actually trying to discover how he can capture human scent, after a fleeting, yet overwhelmingly sensual, encounter with a fruit-selling girl (played by Karoline Herfurth, who is officially the most beautiful woman I’ll mention today). After discovering that scent is ephemeral, Grenouille becomes determined to learn how to capture human scent permanently, leaving a trail of corpses behind him.

Tom Tykwer (who you may have encountered behind the helm of Run Lola Run a few years back) directs, and the film is beautifully shot, conveying overpowering smells effectively with plenty of gratuitous, maggoty close-ups. Newcomer Ben Whishaw is excellent as the amoral Grenouille, seeing the world entirely through smell and oblivious to all other human concerns, and his outstanding performance here marks him out as being one to watch in the coming years.

It’s by no means flawless; the film lurches between genres, unable to settle on a theme, so we begin with misery before lapsing into comedy, then moving swiftly into horror before the film turns into a (a little difficult to swallow) fable. John Hurt’s narration could have been better paced, providing the film with a consistent rhythm, but is sporadic and uneven, breaking the flow at moments you’d likely forgotten there was even a narrator.

(Incidentally, wouldn’t a film starring John Hurt and Morgan Freeman as world-class, competing narrators be great? No?)

Dustin Hoffman — with his meandering accent — struck me as being a little miscast, playing for laughs what could have been a far more tragic character, and Rachel Hurd-Wood turns in a bit of a wide-eyed, drippy performance, lacking sufficient gravitas and charisma to be really believable as the inspiration for a perfume.

But ultimately, these are all minor quibbles. Perfume may be flawed, but it’s also compelling, comical, beautiful and horrific. Recommended.