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Retrospective Film Review: Scent of a Woman

Sunday 06 April 2014

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Words Lizzie

Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is in a bit of a pickle.

Having eyeballed those responsible for playing a prank on their private school’s headmaster, he now faces the difficult decision of whether or not to rat out his peers – a moral dilemma compounded by the bribe headmaster Trask lays before him: squeal, and glide into Harvard. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) meanwhile has come out of the other side. Having spent a lifetime in the Army watching great men relinquish their principles, along with the senseless waste of young life he’s experienced, Frank’s capacity for compassion has left him almost as quickly as his eyesight. Charlie feels like he’s teetering on the brink of an abyss, Frank has welcomed its embrace.

When most on-screen couples are romantic or buddy cops it’s a delightful rarity to see such an interesting pairing – even if things do unfold rather as expected come the film’s final moments – the ride is a blast. Charlie’s Thanksgiving Weekend job is to babysit the cantankerous colonel – an easy $300 that will buy his plane fare home for Christmas – but Frank has other ideas; a farewell tour of wonders in New York before his liberating suicide.

The joy in Martin Brest’s movie (from all the way back in 1992) comes from the effortless way it touches upon so many thematic bases with truly poignant resonance. Privilege, class, elitism, scholastic morality, fatalism, and depression all show their hands along the way. The fact Charlie and Frank may end up friends thanks to the 157-minute cathartic journey they share may be a foregone conclusion, but the movie nimbly hops from set-piece to set-piece, each one refining and building on its predecessor. The famous tango Frank performs with stood-up diner Donna (Gabrielle Anwar) is offered up these days as the movie’s centerpiece, but there’s an undeniable mesmerism in watching the pair’s cut and thrust in the film’s more intimate moments. The 22-year-old O’Donnell is tremendous as the student with nothing to offer but his inexperience and innate integrity, and Pacino’s barnstorming performance (which won him his first Best Actor Oscar the following year) pinballs from wildly abandoned enthusiasm (mainly in women and Ferraris), to steely menace, to dead-eyed resigned fatigue. Dissenters may dismiss it as trademark Shouty Pacino, but there’s an immense subtlety in amongst the pyrotechnics.

Along with Thomas Newman’s Americana soulful score, the film is also notable for the supporting performances of two late, great actors; a young Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays Charlie’s slippery classmate George, and James Rebhorn as headmaster Trask, an effectively smarmy pillar of Etonian authority.

Words: Ash Verjee