It’s a major task when a biopic of an infamous director is taken on. From the moment audiences are seated, they’re comparing the film-about-a-filmmaker with said director’s own notorious body of work – as if the spirit of the creative subject itself could be invoked to “tell the story behind the stories”. Naturally, this was the main challenge director Sacha Gervasi needed to overcome in the making of her semi-biopic Hitchcock – working out how to do justice to a creative genius while paying homage to him without overdoing the tributing. Like I said, a big task.
The second challenge is to psyche audiences up before seeing the film, that it isn’t really a full bio on the man; more-so one chapter in his life. Indeed, Hitchcock is based on the book Hitchcock And The Making Of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, and to put audiences in the right frame of mind, there should have been a better title that hinted it wasn’t the life story of Hitch but one particular, yet still relevant, part of it.
The final challenge is casting the lead. Who to play the role of a director who challenged convention, stuck to his principles, and was as fallible as his long list of dubious leads? Anthony Hopkins was an okay choice but he brings with him too many connotations of a demented Hannibal to truly sympathise with the cocky-but-shaky Hitch. There are times in this film when Hopkins brings a little of Hannibal in appropriately – like when Hitchcock is putting the scare into his leading lady to get the most out of that infamous Psycho shower scene, but there are too many moments when that psychotic glint in his eye becomes too intense, and viewers are left wondering is the director more villain than victim or hero.
If there were a hero in this film, it would have to be the director’s wife Alma Reville (played wonderfully by Helen Mirren) for it’s she who constantly saves the day – stepping in to finish parts of a messy project her husband started, taking charge of her own love life, and generally turning what was meant to be a celebration of one of cinema’s greatest men into a quasi-feminist feel-good flick.
Indeed, it is the support characters of this film who do the best job in keeping its pathos together: Scarlett Johansson is delightful as a butter-wouldn’t-melt Janet Leigh, James D’Arcy is very convincing as timid actor Anthony Perkins (who played Norman Bates in the original Psycho) if not too close to Perkins’ play-character than to his real-life persona, and Toni Collette – although sometimes coming across as too deadpan for her role as director’s assistant– manages to appeal thanks to us being able to relate to the various roles she portrayed in The United States Of Tara – since here two of these appear to have been rolled into one (Mumsy-turned-rebel).
If viewers go to see this film for what it is – a movie about the making of a movie using a few of the director’s own tricks to deliver entertaining cinema – and don’t expect to see the full life of Alfred Hitchcock, they’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of it.
Personally, I’d watch it again on Blu-ray, if only to pick up on more of the clever references to Hitchcock’s own body of awe-inspiring work.
Hitchcock is in cinemas January 10, 2013.