How much should likeness play into a performance? This is a question I found myself wrestling with when watching Sacha Gervasi’s (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) biopic of arguably the greatest filmmaker who has ever lived, The Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
Even if the script were in place – which it isn’t – there’s a troubling extravagance in the peculiarly Oscar-nominated make-up job Anthony Hopkins is subjected to, which renders him virtually unrecognisable, but also stifles his performance and prevents it from amounting to anything more than Anthony Hopkins playing himself while trying to play Alfred Hitchcock.
Though the film centers around the relationship between Hitch and his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), as they begin production on the director’s most famous film, Psycho, Gervasi eschews an intimate examination of the director’s methods and personality in favour of documenting the childish spats he and his Reville have on a regular basis.
Padding things out are some sterile 4th wall-breaking sequences in which Hitchcock conducts pieces to camera, and surreal asides in which he talks to an imaginary Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life killer who served as the inspiration for the original Psycho novel.
Fighting against both the cumbersome make-up and his own distinctive vocal register, Hopkins does manage to grasp at some of the wit and larger-than-life charm that helps keep the director an intriguing figure even outside of his life’s work.
Along the way, he also channels a few insights into production of Psycho, relating to the magic of editing, and arguably the most memorable revelation that it was apparently Alma who suggested Janet Leigh be killed off at the end of the film’s first act. Indeed, the star of the show is without question Mirren, who clearly relishes playing the spunky woman behind the Master, and consistently surprises as the unexpected source of inspiration in Hitch’s creative process.
There’s no denying, though, that both performers are undermined at almost every turn by John J. McLaughlin’s script, which is based on Stephen Rebello’s book about Psycho’s production, yet doesn’t manage to transform it into something that is particularly cinematic or appealing overall.
More impressive than anything is the period detail, the red carpet premiere of North by Northwest, the Paramount studio lot, the cars and the film sets that all look impeccably of the period. The film’s strongest scenes are surely those rooted in the production of Psycho, namely some tongue-in-cheek gags regarding the source material, and the various administrative issues Hitchcock was saddled with pertaining to the Hollywood Production Code and the film’s sexual and violent content.
To speak of sex in Psycho is, of course, to speak of Janet Leigh, the film’s lead starlet, who is played here by Scarlett Johansson. One can’t help but feel that Johansson’s casting is something of a stunt, albeit one that mostly works, while Jessica Biel being saddled with the role of Vera Miles, however, is wholly less convincing, if only a small part of a film which makes pains to concede Hitchcock’s possessiveness of his actresses – especially those he wants to sleep with.
One scene in which Hitchcock gets exasperated with shooting the famous shower scene and decides to performing the stabbing motion himself is simply too surreal to be believed, and the film slowly tips itself onto the wrong side of weird the further it progresses.
We see Ed Gein sleeping next to his dead mother, and Gein then serving as a therapist to Hitch; though these sequences aim to create a sinister tone reflecting the director’s classic film, all they do is make us wish we were watching more of its production, if not the film itself. Some of the kookiness works – such as some fun shadow play and a shot of Hitch snipping some garden shears – but on the whole it just slows the film down.
Simply, there’s just too much filler, most notably as Alma attempts to stay sexy and appealing to Hitch in the face of Janet Leigh. Their passive aggressive snipes at one another – and Alma’s subsequent excursions with loved-up screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) – create plenty of boring “tension” in the relationship, which only really works when it formulates into the film they’re making, when we see Hitch and Alma as a filmmaking team. To see all that work pay-off at the premiere of Psycho – complete with terrified reactions from the moviegoers – is a brief moment of gleeful delight.
Without question a wasted opportunity, Hitchcock squanders everything from the promise of seeing what makes the famed director tick to its stellar supporting line-up (also including Toni Collette, James D’arcy and Michael Stuhlbarg).
Like the recent Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, Gervasi’s film glosses over the more fascinating aspects of the subject’s personality, and is simply more interested in imaginary conversations. At 98 minutes in length, at least it won’t leave you stewing in your own dismay for too long.
This sentimental, lightweight biopic is more concerned with the childish passive-aggressiveness of Hitchcock’s marriage than the inner-workings of his artistic mind.
Hitchcock is out in the US now and in UK cinemas tomorrow.
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