The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was notorious for his obsession with leading ladies, but what of the relationship with his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma Reville?
Such is the premise for this welcome, but uneven, biopic of Britain's greatest director: a man born into a modest, barrow-boy existence in London's East End, only to rise as a creative force through both silent and early talkies - an impressive feat in itself - before Hollywood beckoned with the onset of war, in 1939.
Hitchcock - Trailer
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Hitchcock - Trailer
A love story about one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, Alfred Hitchcock, and his wife and partner Alma Reville.
The Hitchcock we are presented with here, though, is an ageing parody, seemingly consigned to lucrative but lesser-renowned contracts on television. Haunted by the critical and commercial failure of the now-classic Vertigo, a radical move is seemingly needed as the 1960s approaches, with Hitch himself glumly turning 60.
Director Sacha Gervasi - who deservedly scored plaudits for his warm-hearted tale of mateship in the offbeat music doco Anvil - pitches this as a love story, mining a similar vein to Simon Curtis's My Week with Marilyn. But there is a strangely underwhelming, telemovie aesthetic in tow.
Much of what we see of Hitchcock (an awkwardly made-up Anthony Hopkins) feels fantastical. There's the blatantly illusory sparring with grim necrophiliac Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), a figure who helped form the basis for Hitchcock's timeless Psycho. Flashes of binge eating are thrown in, to ham-fistedly explain his lifelong obesity. An apparently erratic charm that both wooed and deterred his blonde stars is also, rather more gently, tipped into the mix, for completion's sake.
Yet at no point do we learn much about Hitchcock the man, or about his wife, Alma (played by Helen Mirren). Even the making of Psycho feels rudimentary, particularly the shoot itself. It's suggested that Hitch could better handle star Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) - or, rather, her him - than Tippi Hedren, but even Johansson's traffic-stopping entrance feels oddly deflating. One almost forgets the man's longing for leggy bombshells, save for Reville admonishing him his delusions in a motherly sort of way, after some flirting of her own with a rival writer.
Coincidentally, The Girl - a BBC/HBO biopic focusing on Hitchcock's apparently twisted lust for Hedren - is also expected on our shores soon, but tells a radically different tale of the man's state of mind. So far it has been greeted, rather surprisingly, with howls of protest from his former ladies, who claim to have nothing but the greatest admiration for a man who, almost singlehandedly, changed the face of cinema, with a wickedly mischievous style that teased audiences with detail, while suitably scaring the bejesus out of them.
Gervasi's take on Hitchcock paints him as a lonely but loveable little boy of a man, whose impulsive actions are more than often kept in check by his wife. Her role in his life and success has been lesser known but, as with this sanitised portrayal of the man, comes disappointingly relayed in a rather flat, almost lifeless fashion. For those who saw Anvil, this will seem almost incomprehensible. Perhaps Gervasi's towering cast simply proved too much.
Hitchcock does have its moments. Studio chiefs and Hollywood agents pop up here and there, to nice effect. The back lot of Paramount Pictures circa 1960 is also brought back to life vividly. The casting of Danny Huston, as the conniving writer Whitfield Cook, is a nice touch, as is James D'Arcy's brief turn as an all-too-believable stand-in for Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates.
Yet Australia's Toni Collette is disappointingly wasted as Hitch's PA. Johansson and Jessica Biel are also both underused. This is a biopic about a man whose self-loathing often threatened to get the better of him, after all.
Ultimately, Hitchcock the man feels best left where he enjoyed being most: behind the camera.
A career-spanning biopic of the man, including the period when he jumped ship from Britain to the US, only to belatedly return, his best work behind him, might have worked better.
But I would venture that Hitch would rather we simply focus on the work itself. After all, if the Master of Suspense proves less than thrilling when away from the camera, then why bother emphasising the fact on screen?
Reviewer's rating: 2 and a half out of 5 stars
Rated M, 98 minutes, opens Thursday
Stars Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston,
Toni Collette, James D’Arcy
The classic movie
Widely viewed as one of Hitchcock's finest pictures, this classic horror drew gasps of delight from audiences upon its release, despite suffering initial scorn from critics. Shot on a shoestring budget, at a time when Hollywood viewed Hitch as a has-been, the film boldly ditches its leading lady in the first act, in an infamous and hugely influential shower scene. Stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins would be forever associated with the movie, with the latter reviving the character of Norman Bates in several sequels, after Hitch had passed on, in the mid-1980s. Bernard Herrmann's iconic, foreboding score still chills to this day.