Based on the book by Stephen Rebello, director Sacha Gervasi‘s Hitchcock is more centered on director Alfred Hitchcock‘s personal life and the enormous stress of his widely unpopular decision to follow up North by Northwest with Psycho than the actual filming of the movie. The result is insanely well-cast and immensely enjoyable study of the famous director and the most important woman in his life, his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren).
The film succeeds beyond my expectations on the strength of three terrific performances. Hopkins, no stranger to throwing on prosthetics to play a larger than life historical figure (Nixon), is transformed into the famous director who is equal parts genius and spoiled child. Mirren is perfect as the loyal wife, who has never gotten her due for being Hitchcock’s most trusted collaborator, who simply wants to spend a little time with a charming old friend (Danny Huston) working on a new project. And Scarlett Johansson brings more than just a pretty face to her portrayal of Psycho actress Janet Leigh who never loses her professionalism even when the director crosses the line.
The terrific choices by casting director Terri Taylor continue through even the film’s smallest roles. Toni Collette isn’t wasted in the small role as the director’s secretary and James D’Arcy embodies Anthony Perkins‘ awkward manner so well, it will make you wish he got a little more screen time. And I’ll admit I got a bit of perverse pleasure at the casting of Jessica Biel as Vera Miles, a talented actress whose career decisions the director disdained enough to use her only in the smallest possible roles.
Although the film relies a little too much the structure of Hitchcock being inspired and haunted by Ed Gein, the real life murderer on whom Psycho is based, it does a good job balancing the talented director’s obsession with the “Hitchcock blonde” (Hitchcock’s infatuation with Grace Kelly is referred to more than once), and Hitchcock’s growing insecurities with his wife’s possible affair and the increasing pressures of fully funding a film the studio has absolutely no confidence in distributing.
Along with Hopkins expressive performance that quite literally looms large over the film, there are two scenes in particular that raise the bar of the film from being more than just an enjoyable trifle. The first is Psycho‘s infamous shower scene where an already agitated director uses his own rage (which is cleverly demonstrated through a little movie magic) to push Leigh to get the performance he needs. Hitchcock slowly realizes while madly pumping the knife at Leigh that he may have gone too far, but he’ll never apologize for it. The second is wholly Mirren’s moment as Alma stands up to her husband’s jealous rantings and reminds Hitch that she is his wife and confidant and has put up with more than her fair share of his eccentric behavior to help bring his genius to the big screen.
It’s likely movie like Hitchcock will get lost in the glut of Oscar contenders hitting movie theaters across the nation over the next month, which is a shame. The story may not be the in-depth examination of Psycho some may wish, but it’s a clever look into the most ambitious and stressful undertaking of the director’s life. Filled with beautiful time period decor and spot-on performances, you may have to work a little to find it, most likely at a nearby art house, but for fans of the director it’s certainly worth the effort.