My first thought on Hitchcock: “Uh-oh, prosthetics.” I’m always leery ~ so often they’re invoked to claim a free pass on otherwise lackluster execution, or they hamper the actor in bringing us their interpretation, or both. But it was Hopkins… surely he can break through any excessive reliance, yes?
Yes. Helmed by director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil), Hitchcock rings clear and true, its story and nuance well intact to engaging, seriously lighthearted effect. And while Hopkins could have done with less adjustment (facially, anyway), we still get to see him work. His characterization beautifully reflects the legendary director’s distinctive speech pattern and demeanor while never attempting actual imitation (the mark of the great).
Based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho” by Stephen Rebello, we meet the Master of Suspense (or “Hitch,” as he prefers) during the professional wasteland following North by Northwest, his career largely regarded as bereft of new tricks. When he comes upon a book detailing the Oedipal activities of taxidermist serial killer Ed Gein, scrumptious inspiration strikes.
Enter Hitch’s longstanding, longsuffering wife and partner Alma Reville, played by the gifted queen Helen Mirren. Alma says no (well, actually hell no), as do the rest of Hitch’s community ~ specifically the folks holding the checkbooks. But for Hitch it’s become about more than making a picture; it’s moved into the territory of legacy, and Alma sees it. Thus begins the perilous climb toward certain redemption or professional death.
Therein we experience the robust heart of Hitchcock ~ though oriented around the mechanics of making Psycho (abundant and supremely delightful they are), we’re treated primarily to Psycho’s lesser-known backstory: what it took for them to bring it to screen. Without spoiling the details, let’s just say the effort was substantial, and Gervasi’s film could just as easily have been entitled, Reville (“Who?” Exactly.). This isn’t Psycho’s story, it’s Alma’s and Hitch’s.
Much credit goes to screenwriter John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), whose sparkling dialogue conveys simultaneously the affection and estrangement between the two, and the paradoxical confidence and pain within each. Hitch with an ego as great as his girth yet easily wounded in a way that reminds one of a guileless child, Alma with a talent as great as Hitch’s yet overlooked given the era’s view of gender (so true Virginia Woolf’s remark, “For most of history, Anonymous was woman”). Their banter never changes timbre be they appreciating or arguing (often both), and through McLaughlin’s words and the actors’ skill we get to experience the glue that kept them together for over fifty years, as well as taste the well-deserved triumph that was Psycho.
Performances delight (and have nothing to with prosthetics). Hopkins’ Hitch exerts his will over all (including employment of a peephole that’s remarkably well-tolerated, a predilection decidedly less favorably conveyed in HBO’s biopic The Girl, starring an equally compelling Toby Jones). In Hopkins’ hands, the aloof Master of Suspense is revealed as inwardly gentle, even sweet (in that word’s best definition), yet possessed of a crafty mind that undoes the likes of tight-fisted execs and self-aggrandizing censors (mercy, today’s standards would have that man in apoplexy).
Mirren offers a customarily superb turn as Alma, who pursues her own bliss both for its own sake and to mitigate the effect of her husband’s constant obsession with his “girls” (though before him, beside him, and behind him is a woman the likes of which any should be so celestially lucky to find). No doormat, she gives him a good what-for and we cheer her on, but when he’s open with her and she forgives, we see why and do as well. Fine and complex lines these are, and our ability to navigate them rests squarely on Mirren’s talent.
Elsewhere we heartily enjoy the filmmaking experience of Psycho, Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, and a simply stupendous James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins (wish he’d had more screen time ~ two more substantive scenes and he could qualify for awards contention). Toni Collette, Danny Huston, and Michael Stuhlbarg round out the proceedings nicely (Stuhlbarg in particular, with a fun counterpoint to his Joqauin-Phoenix-meets-Joe-Pesci cameo in Seven Psychopaths).
Of course such an iconic subject begs the awards question; Hopkins and Mirren will likely factor into the conversation, and rightly so. Hopkins’ portrayal stands above the makeup (just compare it to butler Mr. Stevens or Hannibal Lecter), and Mirren’s achievement stands in the appearance that she isn’t even working. As a film, Hitchcock wouldn’t seem likely to pull major contention, but it’s a joyous romp (and testament to the art of editing).
Alternatively devilish, wry, soulful, and witty, Hitchcock presents a singing celebration of one of cinema’s great unsung collaborations. The last fifteen minutes are glorious ~ I’ll say no more (but look forward to seeing them again).