At the very height of his powers, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock didn't so much play the Hollywood game as completely change it. His best films - and Psycho is right up there amongst them - shook up the industry and cinematic landscape after they were released, even if it sometimes took a few decades for their brilliance to be properly appreciated. Perhaps it's unfair to expect that same level of brilliance from Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, but it's also hard to shake the feeling that its subject deserved something more powerful than this gentle biopic about a very complicated genius.
Flash back to November 1959. The great Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is about to begin shooting the film that will become the crown jewel of his career... though, of course, he doesn't know that yet. Instead, he is mired in production woes on a day-to-day basis, plagued by financial constraints, a script that needs re-working, wary censors, and his own demons and self-doubt. Through it all, Hitchcock's constant remains his loyal, immensely capable wife Alma (Helen Mirren), who gives up glory and a career of her own to take care of a man who loves and infuriates her in equal measure.
Anyone who's expecting a suspenseful brain-teaser or a biting psychological drama in grand Hitchcockian style will be disappointed. Gervasi tries to spice up proceedings by introducing real-life serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) into Hitchcock's psyche. The periodic visits from the man who was the inspiration for Psycho's sociopath Norman Bates were clearly intended to draw a parallel between the man who sublimates his demons by making movies, and the one who indulges them by committing unforgivable crimes. Unfortunately, the device is more intrusive than effective. It breaks up the narrative and feels forced.
A big reason that Mr Gein feels so out of place is the fact that Hitchcock is really more of a love story - a domesticated little picture focusing almost squarely on Hitchcock's prickly, loving relationship with Alma. She is the glue that holds the man and his movie together, and it's when she drifts away from him - possibly into the arms of second-rate screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) - that Hitchcock frays at the seams. As the movie goes on, it becomes clearer why he stayed with her all his life, despite his notorious penchant for beautiful blonde bombshells like his star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson).
As can be expected, Hopkins and Mirren deliver commanding performances. They don't really look much like their real-life counterparts, even with Hopkins encased in a fat suit and expensive prosthetics, but they're both such skilful and smart actors that it's easy to believe that they're companions, confidants and combatants in much the same way Hitchcock and his Alma must have been. The younger cast members fare well enough, with James D'arcy putting in a particularly uncanny turn as Anthony Perkins, the boyish, twitchy star of Psycho.
For what it is, Hitchcock is pretty slight - it's not going to set either the box office or the movie industry on fire. But, on its own merits, this is a sweet, smart film that imbues its iconic title character with a little humanity - while never suggesting he's a saint - and returns some of that hard-earned glory to his long-suffering wife.
Basically: Hitchcock wouldn't have made a film this safe and sweet, but he's unlikely to be too upset by its tender portrayal of his relationship with his beloved wife.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
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