Watching Hitchcock you may find yourself wondering, often, what Alfred Hitchcock himself would think of Sacha Gervasi’s efforts to celebrate his life and contributions to cinema. If Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the man tells us anything about him, his likeliest reaction might well be a cutting remark spoken while gazing down his nose at Gervasi’s film. Hitchcock commemorates the man’s work well enough, but only in the most dishonestly reverential and sentimental sense possible; the movie chooses to err on the side of playful, making frothiness its through-line instead of forcefully throwing back the curtain on Hitchcock’s persona as both man and director so as to examine him in earnest. Think more along the lines of Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn than Anvil!: The Story of Anvil.
Put another way, Hitchcock isn’t particularly that interested in anything grander than transforming its leading man into a near-perfect physical representation of its subject. It helps, of course, that the transformation in question happens to be a wild, campy success, and that Hitchcock busies itself with respectful, dutiful recreations of its period and the span of Hitchcock’s career which it covers; the picture may not be wholly accurate to the man, but it is to the time. For the most part, plot and narrative are both sandwiched in between the beginning of North By Northwest‘s theatrical run and Psycho‘s eventual runaway success, and it’s on the latter film’s production and release that Gervasi places his focus. So, essentially, Hitchcock happens to be as much about the eponymous auteur as it is about what is arguably his most iconic film.
Taken as an ode to one of the slasher genre’s forerunners, Hitchcock is engrossing. In point of the film is at its best when it functions as a “movie about movies”, the sort of cinema intent on paying tribute to the filmmaking process from top to bottom. In a clever move on Gervasi’s behalf, we only ever witness the movie’s recreation of Psycho in its rawest, most malleable form as “Hitch” sits on the sidelines directing the picture from his chair. If anyone has a better device for homaging a classic film without ever having to duplicate even a single frame from it, I’d like to see it; Gervasi’s slyness keeps Hitchcock pure and spares him the dangers of artistic mimicry, letting him have his cake (or perhaps caviar) and eat it too.
That goes for us as well. Gervasi and Hopkins are at their joint best when comfortably observing the master of suspense as Hitchcock, director, rather than Hitchcock, husband. Through Gervasi’s eyes and Hopkins’ performance we get to see flashes of what made Hitchcock such a great artist– his obsessiveness, his bullishness, his inclination toward control. If Hitchcock had used his inclinations as an artist as its center of focus, and the set of Psycho its primary location, then we may have been left with a less complete yet more cohesive portrait of the man than what Gervasi supplies in totality. But Hitchcock opts to go the feel-good route, opting to put its star under a microscope too many times for its own good.
Did you know that bereft of the genius, Alfred Hitchcock was nothing more than a petulant, doleful schoolboy? Hitchcock actively portrays his relationship with his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), as a never-ending battle between an impudent son and his under-appreciated mother. It’s true that Alma, a massively skilled film editor, did put her career on the back burner to assist Hitchcock with his, and that story may be worth the telling in its own right, but if Gervasi succeeds in making the lightness of the backstage drama palatable, he horribly bungles the domestic passages of his film. What occurs in the personal life of Hitch and Alma is painted in broad, mawkish strokes; it’s enough to make us wish we could switch places with Marion Crane in a certain ill-fated shower scene. (Though in the film’s defense, that maudlin sensibility does lead up to an absolutely hilarious one-liner just before the credits begin rolling.)
Maybe, though, a film like Hitchcock needs neither strong nor even decent plotting or narrative to be valuable. That might be overstating the picture’s case somewhat, but Hopkins and Mirren give the movie so much heart and soul through their acting that it’s hard to completely write the film off on the strength of their contributions alone. Of course, they’re both operating in completely different modes; Mirren brings a human, honest affectation to her work while Hopkins chews scenery with ham-handed relish. He shoots for caricature, she for reality, and both of them succeed admirably in their respective efforts, though for all of Mirren’s sublime talent it’s Hopkins, engorged courtesy of the magic of make-up, who steals the majority of the film’s spotlight.
Both of them are joined by a cadre of gifted supporting players who help give Gervasi’s world life– Scarlet Johansson as Janet Leight, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, Toni Colette as Hitch’s long-suffering assistant, Michael Stuhlbarg as Hitchcock’s agent, Richard Portnow as the legendary Barney Balaban– but the cast is the only element of Hitchcock that shows any real, lasting spark. Gervasi hints at greatness when he anchors his picture firmly in the process of making pictures; light-lifting greatness, yes, but greatness nonetheless. Yet the end result here is a mixed bag, an examination of one of cinema’s most influential and indispensable directors that only flirts with insight, too often trading real understanding and vision for a sentimentality tale played with far too pat a touch. For all of Hitchcock‘s better merits, it’s impossible to escape the sense that this is precisely the sort of film Hitch would be all too happy to deride himself.