HITCHCOCK. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. 99 minutes. Rated M (mature themes).
Based on Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock makes entertaining ‘retro’ viewing for filmgoers interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s working relationship with his wife Alma Reville, and his clever circumvention of Hollywood’s morally censorious Production Code (known as the Hays Code), while working on his 1960 psychological thriller Psycho.
But those who want the well-acted and attractively mounted biopic to do more than scratch the surface of what made one of the 20th century’s most gifted and intriguing filmmakers tick psychologically, may leave the cinema disappointed.
Hitchcock begins with the 60 year-old Hitchcock (played by Anthony Hopkins) seemingly at a cross-road in his career, when after the opening of his most recent film North by North West, it is suggested in the press that the best of his filmmaking is behind him.
Hitchcock is already immersed in imagining ways of bringing to the screen in full garish detail the true story of the mentally unhinged serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), as told in Robert Bloch’s sensationalist novel, Psycho.
His producer at Paramount, Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) refuses to finance the project. But with the support of his loyal, long suffering wife and artistic collaborator Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock decides to finance the film himself, and gathers around him a devoted, talented cast and crew whose names are destined to become synonymous with the ground-breaking thriller: Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy), Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), and composer Bernard Herrmann (Paul Schackman).
Alma’s vital input into Psycho’s storyline and production is discreet and deferential. But when her patience is sorely tried by Hitchcock’s libidinous attitude to his female leads, she strikes out on her own and becomes professionally and personally involved with the writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), before finally putting her mark on Psycho in ways not previously revealed.
There is much to enjoy and admire in Hitchcock, not the least being Helen Mirren’s miraculous transformation into the singular Alma, Hitchcock’s devoted but always dignified backstop. Hopkins does his best as Hitchcock, capturing something of the director’s iconic voice and manner, but very little of his physical presence, the fault perhaps of Hopkins relying too heavily on the power of not entirely convincing prosthetics.
Viewers will certainly enjoy the keyhole view of the making of Hitchcock’s psychological horror classic. But this comes at the expense of grappling with the strange demons that inhabited the imagination of Hitchcock himself.
The ferociously gifted director was notorious for his difficulty with women, which many biographers have ascribed to Hitchcock’s difficult relationship with his own mother. Hitchcock’s obsession with psychoanalysis and the dark workings of the mind was fashionable at the time, and was reflected subliminally in almost all his post war films, Spellbound, Vertigo and The Birdsin particular.
This darkness within the man himself is hinted at, but never explored. Whatever Gervasi’s reason for this - a reluctance to detract from the importance of Alma or to darken the lightness of the film’s biopic tone - this failure to give Hitchcock the man greater ballast results in Hitchcockbeing worthily interesting, but little more.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
20th Century Fox.
Out 10th January 2013.