THOUGH she can sometimes be found playing a contemporary resident of Buckingham Palace, Helen Mirren has more in common with Hollywood monarchs of old. Whatever picture she is in, this dame is queen of all she portrays, elevating the ordinary to another realm.
She has rarely done so more fittingly than in the breezy and entertaining Hitchcock. Though its title suggests a biopic, Sacha Gervasi's drama is a portrait of a marriage, a gaze at the making of Psycho, and a long overdue look at the woman behind the Hitchcock throne – his wife, Alma Reville, played by Mirren.
Matching style to tone, Gervasi (Anvil, The Terminal) goes all out to be engaging. That he goes too far, with one ploy in particular landing with a dull thud, can be forgiven when set aside what else is on offer, not least Mirren as Reville and Anthony Hopkins as the original Hitch. While Hitchcock purists might disapprove, Hitchcock slips down nicely as an amuse bouche to the meat and drink of the master's films.
Between BBC2's The Girl, and now Gervasi's drama, there have been more Hitchcocks around lately than one can shake a carving knife at. In Julian Jarrold's TV piece, the subject was Hitchcock's relationship with Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds, the film that failed to do for birds what David Attenborough did for meerkats. If Hitchcock made that picture today, crows would sue.
Here, the focus at first is Hitchcock's relationship with his fame and work. When the film opens it is 1959 and he has just released North By Northwest. Vertigo, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, and The 39 Steps are all behind him, and he is being asked by journalists whether he shouldn't just quit while he is ahead. Instead, Hitchcock decides to take a side step into horror, drawing inspiration from the grisly, true crime deeds of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin killer who loved his dear old ma a little too much.
John McLaughlin's screenplay, from the book by Stephen Rebello, portrays Hitchcock at a turning point. He feels that his television shows, though they were highly lucrative, have cheapened the Hitchcock brand somewhat. He wants to shock and provoke, to show he still can. (Strangely enough, Gervasi's film, with its comic touches and slight hamminess, has the playful tone of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.)
Much of the fun to be had from the film comes from watching its portrayal of old Hollywood at work. Hitchcock fails to get backing from the studio, but goes ahead regardless. He invites the press around, to his own home, to charm them. He casts his leading ladies as though picking them from a catalogue. Deborah Kerr, for instance, is "too Scottish". It is all a giddy, glamorous whirl.
In the verbal sparring between Hitchcock and Reville we see a creative partnership hard at work, with her spurring him on to greater dares. Hopkins and Mirren can do this stuff in their sleep, of course, but it is still fun to watch them do it. Mirren's next right royal engagement is on Sunday at the Baftas, where she is up for best actress.
When it comes to depicting Hitchcock, Toby Jones's version in The Girl has the edge. (As for the physical portrayal of Alma, Mirren looks more like one of Hitchcock's movie stars than his wife.) Hopkins's Hitchcock is like Santa Claus compared to Jones's intense and brooding soul. Gervasi's picture even manages to have fun with the portrayal of Hitchcock as a director obsessed with his leading ladies, as when he is seen looking through a peep hole at someone, only for the camera to draw back and reveal it is a set from Psycho.
It is left to the actress playing Marion Crane's sister to complain about Hitchcock's ways. Otherwise, Marion/Janet Leigh, played by Scarlett Johansson, handles the old boy as if he is a charming but wimpy suitor.
When the film strays from Hitchcock's leading ladies, behind and in front of the camera, it loses its way. The first use of the Ed Gein "ghost" as Hitchcock's guide is faintly amusing; the umpteenth is screamingly tiresome. A subplot, involving Alma and an ambitious screenwriter, played by Danny Huston, grows old surprisingly quickly, too.
Once the film returns to Mirren, and the making of Psycho, it snaps back into shape. We see how the film goes from a flabby horror to a sinewy shocker, courtesy of editing, and how it was cleverly marketed to make an impact. Long before viral marketing threw its two bytes in, Hitchcock knew how to sell a picture.
None of that would have mattered had Psycho not been the work of genius it is credited as today. As Gervasi's film shows, Alma Reville contributed to that success. Behind every great man, once again, was a woman biting her lip.
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