Scent of a Woman
Sunday, November 29, 2009
This film review is 17 years late, but I do not apologise. After all, it's free. Let me explain though. I went to a reception on Saturday; to celebrate the opening of a new office complex in Moscow. The developer is an old friend of mine; a client from my early days in Poland. In fact, I first met him the year the film was released.
It was good to be around success, after another tough week in a very tough market. Over the celebratory drinks and snacks, I met another friend who invited me to have lunch with him and his young daughter. They are alone together in Moscow because his wife/her mother is in Texas, expecting a baby boy.
We talked about a lot of things, but the conversation finally turned to cinema. They are watching all the classic movies together. I guess he's giving her a cultural context as a Russian/American and he could do worse. They are clearly both enjoying it and talked animatedly about the films they had seen. When they asked about my favourite movie, I told them this one and explained why.
As a young man I wanted to be an actor. It was the only artistic thing I was good at and I loved it. When Mrs Paine and I first went out together, aged 17, I had to excuse myself for a month before seeing her again as I was in performance or rehearsal for the next 28 consecutive days. For years I regretted not trying for an acting career, but I had no money behind me and other, incompatible, dreams. You can't raise a family on 11.3 weeks' work a year (the UK average for actors).
As it turned out, lawyering wasn't a bad substitute. There was real theatre in the courtroom when I first qualified, but crime doesn't pay - at least not for the lawyers. If you are going to "sell out", it's important to get full price. So I found theatre instead in the life of a commercial lawyer; particularly in negotiations. I don't claim to know more law than my competitors, but I can stage a better "walk out" (when the director client wants it).
When I first saw it, this movie convinced me I had made the right choice. Pacino's performance as a blind ex-officer on a "final tour of the pleasures" in New York with young Charlie (Chris O'Donnell), a schoolboy hired to look after him for the Thanksgiving weekend, is monumental. One scene in particular, where he dances the tango with British actress Gabrielle Anwar's character, is superb. Pacino learned the dance for the film. Though the out-of-context clip can't do it justice, just trust me. When you have been set up to watch it by the preceding scenes, it is funny, romantic and touching.
I described the film - and why I loved it - so vividly to my friends that I thought I might have overstated. I have just finished watching it again for the umpteenth time and my conscience is clear. Remade from an Italian original, it is simple and dramatic. The direction is perfectly paced; unhurried, but without a wasted minute. Every shot drives the story forward and pulls you into the characters' lives. If you have a heart, Pacino's performance will be with you all your life. Even the Academy got it artistically right that year. Pacino got "Best Actor," though the film was not a commercial success.
Chris O'Donnell made a great job of his meaty cinema debut, Philip Seymour Hoffman made an early and beautifully crafted appearance. There are also great cameos like Gene Canfield as Manny the limo driver and (in his last movie) Leonard Gaines, as Freddie Bisco, "the grey ghost." Finally, of course, Gabrielle Anwar will go down in movie history for for her nicely understated part in that mesmeric scene.
The final scene when, instead of killing himself as he had planned, Pacino's character becomes so engaged in Charlie's life as to turn up unannounced to speak for him at a school disciplinary hearing would make a stone cry. He delivers a passionate speech about leadership, honesty and integrity that, if I had the Left's approach to education as propaganda, I would want in the national curriculum. I am happy it is safely embedded in "just a movie", where people may happen upon it and be moved.
The film is still not that highly rated by most critics. IMDB has it as only 7.7 out of 10. I am sorry, but the rest of the world is wrong about this. It is my favourite movie and it will take something special to depose it, or Al Pacino, from my awed, respectful affections.