Say what you will about film making, it’s nothing if not self-referential, or perhaps the better word would be masturbatory. While normally this just means the director packing his films with nods and references to other (often better) films, sometimes they just drop the pretence all together and just make a movie about a movie. This is the case with Hitchcock, which tells the story of the filming of Psycho set against the backdrop of director Alfred Hitchcock’s marriage to Alma Reville. Or is it the story of Htchcock and Reville’s marriage against the backdrop of the production of Psycho? The film tries to strike a balancing act somewhat between the two, though at the end of the day the TITLE may give away which of the two is the real focus.
The story starts at the premier of North by North West, and sees Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) discover and become fixated on Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho and set out to make the story, loosely based on the Ed Gien murders, into his next big movie. All the while, Hitchcock’s marriage to long time partner Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) has seemingly hit a rough patch as Hitchcock feels threatened by Alma’s friendship with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).
So right off the bat the film is definitely spinning a few plates, and which plate you’ll care about and which one you wouldn’t even blink at if it came crashing to the ground really is up to you. Film nerds like me will probably be FAR more interested in the production storyline, especially since this is all reportedly a pretty accurate depiction of how it all went down. You normal folks, however, will probably find more interest in the more personal side of the story, and I can’t blame you since Hopkins and Mirren both hit it out of the park.
While I don’t have the faintest bloody clue what Alma Reville was like in real life, Mirren turns out a great performance anyway, and brings probably one of the more well-rounded female characters of recent years to the screen. Hopkins, in a massive departure from his normal routine of just playing Anthony Hopkins, totally nails it as Hitchcock. The voice, the mannerisms, it’s all there. But rather than just play a caricature, he brings some depth to it, usually presenting Hitchcock as something of a man child, a petty, infantile potential human train-wreck barely kept on the rails.
This is one of the major strengths of the film, really. While it could have easily gotten bogged down in hero-worship as Hitchcock breaks rules, changes cinema history and ogles dishy blondes, but the film, in large part through Hopkins’ performance, never shies away from the fact that and the end of the day Hitchcock wasn’t exactly what you could call totally there. What it feels like is an honest portrayal, a balanced one, that isn’t as interested in tooting the Hitchcock horn as telling an actual story.
The supporting cast are all great, but special mention should be given to Michael Wincott as Ed Gein and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins (who played Norman Bates in the film), as well as some kind of “You got shafted out of stealing this movie” award. D’Arcy only really gets one flipping scene and nails the quiet, repressed, maybe he’s gay but maybe he isn’t mannerisms that won Perkins the role.
Wincott’s Ed Gein gets a little more to work with, mostly appearing as a spectre who haunts Hitchcock throughout the film, a signifier of Hitch’s own feelings of rage and anger as he feels his marriage begin to break down. When I feel angry and helpless I usually just sit alone in my room and watch Bruce Campbell movies, but to each their own I suppose.
Scarlett Johannson and Jessica Biel are also pretty good as the resident Hitchcock Blondes Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively,but given that they aren’t given too much substance to work with, you probably won’t remember much about their performances after the movie’s over.
Director Sacha Gervasi brings a good game to the table stylistically. Given that this is his first foray into fiction film, him having only directed a documentary before, I’d say the fellow has some skills. The colors pop in that faux-technicolor kind of way, and while the camera work doesn’t exactly jump out at you, it accomplishes what it sets out to do with grace.
If Hitchcock has any one real flaw it’s that, as I mentioned before, you’ll probably find one of the film’s two main facets, the behind the scenes action of Psycho or the relationship between Hitchcock and Reville more interesting than the other, unless you’re some kind of perfectly well-rounded god-child, in which case I hate you. And if, like me, you find yourself more drawn to the production aspect than you’re likely to find yourself wanting more when the film ends, though I suppose leaving you wanting more isn’t exactly the worst sin a film could commit. All the same, the film had me thinking all the while of what could have been if maybe it had a half hour more running time to give the secondary characters more time to shine, especially given some of the excellent performances from the supporting cast.
Ultimately, Hitchcock never seems to rise above being merely “Good”. The performances, direction and writing all range from decent to very good, but the slightly schizophrenic focus of the film kept me from really enjoying it as much as I should have.