Having been more than a little disappointed by the cable film "The Girl" (2012) screened over Christmas, where Toby Jones swathed in prosthetic make-up made a reasonable fist of portraying the iconic director, I nearly gave the cinema showing of the above movie a miss, especially since nearly all of the main critics came down hard on the film, only begrudgingly noting some splendid acting. So we went to a matinee at our local on its penultimate showing and found that we were far from alone in the small but crowded theatre. I suppose this is because Hitchcock is one of the very few directors whose name and image can conjure up fond recollections, especially among an older audience.
Let me say up front that I really enjoyed the movie and not just because I am an unrepentent film buff. A mixture of biopic, period recreation, and a new look at historical figures from 50s' Hollywood, stirred with a combination of thriller, black comedy, and romance, the film may be flawed and skewed beyond factual recognition, but it is thoroughly entertaining, thanks largely to the characters of Anthony Hopkins as "call me Hitch, hold the cock" and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville. As fine an actor as he is, Hopkins has not really been at his best when portraying real people -- think of his versions of Nixon and Picasso, whereas he is a master of bringing imaginary characters to life. In this film he too underwent possibly unnecessary hours in the make-up artist's chair to give the impression of the portly Hitchcock, but it was to some extent a waste of time, since he no more resembles the director than did Toby J. However, when it comes to his manner, his way of talking, his inflections and his phrasing, Hopkins is magnificent and one can immediately warm to the bull-headed and sarky beast that Hitch appeared -- despite his many self-doubts and insecurities. Were you to close your eyes, you could believe it was the man himself up there on the screen.
Although ostensibly about Hitchcock during the period when he was making "Psycho", the film in the end is more a love letter to the long-suffering Reville, largely ignored by the public that worshipped her husband, and portrayed here as the real power behind the throne. Mirren has drabbed down somewhat to morph into his dowdy collaborator (in this sense Imelda Staunton in "The Girl" was far more physically believable). She does however bring real strength to her portrayal of the equally talented filmmaker, who has spent years catering to her husband's eccentricities. I think her suggested flirtation with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (a real hack of the period, brought to swarmy life by Danny Houston) detracts from the film's overall interest, as does the spirit of serial killer Ed Gein acting as a macabre mentor for Hitch in certain scenes. Not having read the Stephen Rebello book which forms the basis for this film, I can't tell if these unnecessary sidelights are part of the backstory or merely embellishments by director Sacha Gervasi (a strange choice, this director of failed-band bio "Anvil") and his own screenwriter. Regardless we are privileged to follow the couple during the period when the only way they could fund the classic movie was to mortgage their own home (and swimming pool), since the studio just didn't want to know about Hitch's little horror film.
There is a great deal of fun to be had in seeing the supporting cast of characters in this saga reincarnated. Scarlett Johansson makes a truly scrumptious Janet Leigh. Having seen her recently in "Avengers Assemble", I thought she was beginning to look a little weary, but here she is delightfully lovely and naive; she does not come across in any way oppressed by the would-be lecherous Hitch with his pet blondes. Jessica Biel looks equally yummy as Vera Miles, whom Hitch purportedly 'hates' for having become pregnant rather than letting him make her a star in "Vertigo". James D'Arcy becomes a fair likeness of Anthony Perkins, with all his own neuroses and mummy hang-ups. Toni Collette makes a fine Peggy Robertson, Hitch's longtime secretary-assistant, while Michael Stuhlbarg is 100% believable as the director's megastar agent Lew Wasserman. Right down to Richard Portnow as Paramount boss Barney Balaban and Kirkwood Smith as the prissy censor whom Hitch outmanoeuvres, the casting is spot-on.
The film is not as fine an example of film-making as the average Hitchcock/Reville product, and even at 98 minutes, it does feel over-extended. However scenes like the director dancing with joy in the theatre lobby at the first "Psycho" screening, as he hears the audience's terrified screams, more than make up for the occasional longeurs and probable elisions of the script.