The tone of the picture is often off-kilter throughout, but the subject matter and the performances of Helen Mirren as Alma and Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock go a long way toward forgiving the movie’s strange anomalies.
The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was notorious for his obsession with leading ladies, but what of the relationship with his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma Reville?
Such is the premise for this welcome, but uneven, biopic of Britain’s greatest director: a man born into a modest, barrow-boy existence in London’s East End, only to rise as a creative force through both silent and early talkies – an impressive feat in itself – before Hollywood beckoned with the onset of war, in 1939.
There’s so much history about Alfred Hitchcock out there it’s hard for any moviegoer to imagine what another film about him might reveal. That’s considering several other films, TV bios and books have pretty much tapped the well.
Hitchcock picks up the story of the director’s life at the height of his success and tells a tale of love and suspense set against the backdrop of the filming of the seminal horror/thriller Psycho.
So it was somewhat smart of screenwriters John J. McLaughlin and Stephen Rebello (based on Rebello’s 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho) to focus the new Hitchcock around the making of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The 1960 film with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh – not the remake in 1998 with Vince Vaughn and Ann Heche – has grossed more than $50 million.
The movie theme of sexuality and murder is part of the new film. Hitchcock – played by an overstuffed Anthony Hopkins – is having an arduous struggle with Paramount over the making of Psycho. They don’t think it’s worth a risk, but Hitchcock is so sure it will be another notch on his ladder that he agrees to find his own funding – which turns out to be a lot of his own money.
While Hitchcock gets more and more absorbed with his intentions, his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) rallies around him until she begins to feel neglected. She has to make suggestions about his decision as a counter balance to his ignoring important facts if the film is to be successful.
When screenwriter and friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) compliments Alma over and over and asks her help on a script he’s writing, she blooms. He whisks her away to his beach house up the coast where Whitfield and Alma become attracted to each other.
Meanwhile, Hitchcock is up to his usual shenanigans, flirting with all the girls on the lot and particularly chasing after his new starlet Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johansson). She’s coy enough to play up to him in order to keep the camera rolling but smart enough to avoid being alone with him.
Unfortunately, even the story about how Alma and Alfred manage their relationship creates some intrigue in the film, there’s nothing very exciting about Hitchcock, even though it has a good cast. Hopkins can certainly take on any part and even though he actually can pass for the iconic director, the role does not sustain Hopkins’ talent.
Mirren is excellent as Alma. Hitchcock was always about emotions and Mirren manages to ride the roller coaster of emotions that fuels Alma’s life. Johansson is great as Leigh. Although her role seems a little more flirtatious than perhaps the real Leigh was on that set, Johansson is adorable and quick thinking in her role. James D’Arcy doesn’t seem to fit the Perkins role at all.
Telling the story of Hitchcock’s life as a suspense thriller itself is a fairly inspired concept and director Sacha Gervasi packs this film full of stylistic markers and references that invoke Hitchcock’s own work – it even begins and ends with Hitchcock’s trademark monologues.
Central to this film, of course, is the incredible performance by Hopkins as Hitchcock.
Hopkins insisted on not being covered with too much prosthetic make-up because he did not want to vanish behind it and have the role turn into simple mimicry.
He did not want people focusing on the clever make-up, he wanted people to believe the character, and the balance struck here is perfect.
Hopkins is made up just enough for it to be clear who he is supposed to be, without the sheer bulk of make-up getting distracting, a la Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper.
It is his performance that sells the character. Hopkins executes a spookily accurate imitation of Hitchcock’s voice, speech pattern, mannerisms, posture, facial expressions and gait, but never overdoes any of it, because laying it on too thick would break the spell.
He possesses an acute and almost arcane understanding of human psychology and the mechanics of fear and spectacle, but he is also a misogynist who mistrusts women and sees them as little more than set-dressing.
Overall the film does content a tight script with a rather weak screenplay; leaving many loopholes. But all this gets filled with some superb acting skills from the likes of Hopkins, Mirren and Johansson.
The dream sequences between Hitchcock and Ed Gein feel slightly out of place, but their narrative purpose and value are nonetheless quite clear, and while there is one clangingly bad line of dialogue in the final scene, it is not enough to detract from the rest of the film.
Hitchcock’s playful yet slightly dark and at times a bit dragging as film to watch.
Ratings: * * */ 5