Film review: A brilliant Hopkins makes a fully rounded Hitchcock

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In Julian Jarrold's recent TV movie The Girl, Alfred Hitchcock was portrayed as a neurotic and predatory figure, tormenting his latest blonde star Tippi Hedren during the making of The Birds (1963). Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, set three years earlier when the English director was preparing Psycho (1960), offers a richer and far more balanced portrait, helped by an exceptional performance from Anthony Hopkins (which has been strangely overlooked for awards consideration).

Hopkins doesn't look much like Hitchcock and doesn't try simply to impersonate the film-maker with his formidable embonpoint. What he does capture is the melancholy, egotism and vulnerability of a 60-year-old Hitchcock who has directed 46 films but is worried the world is beginning to move on without him. Hopkins' Hitch is sardonic and deadpan but also painfully conscious of his shifting status in the new Hollywood.

"Shouldn't you just quit while you're ahead?", a reporter is shown asking the director at the premiere of North by Northwest (1959). The camera zooms into Hitchcock's face. His affront at the question is self-evident but so too is his worry that he really might be "too old". This is the 1960s, after all. The old studio system is in its death throes and TV is in the ascendant.

Film historians may take issue with certain aspects of John J McLaughlin's screenplay, based on Stephen Rebello's 1990 book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Shot handsomely in colour with production design reminiscent of an episode of Mad Men, the film fails to capture the gruesome energy of Psycho, which Hitchcock made in black-and-white, in double-quick time, with his television crew. The dream-like sequences in which Hitchcock is shown alongside Ed Gein – the murderer who inspired Psycho – aren't effective. Nor – in spite of scenes showing Hitchcock overseeing the marketing campaign for the film – does the film do justice to his hucksterism and showmanship. Its strength is as a psycho-drama about an aging film-maker desperate to prove he is still relevant to young audiences.

The film might better have been titled "Mr and Mrs Hitchcock". On one level, this is a study of a marriage. Alma (Helen Mirren) features almost as prominently as Hitch himself. While he is fretting that his career may be on the slide, she has allowed her head to be turned by a charming but talentless hack screenwriter (Danny Huston) who is using her to reach her husband. Hitchcock becomes increasingly jealous and irritated. He depends on Alma. She is his editor, his advisor and – just as importantly – the woman who keeps the fridge full of foie gras. Mirren is an improbably glamorous Alma but she plays the part with typical spikiness and intelligence.

Movies about other movies can risk seeming self-indulgent and redundant. Inevitably, there is something distracting about seeing one star playing another. Audiences struggle to suspend their disbelief. Here, we have Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. Again, as with Hopkins and Mirren, they don't look much like the originals.

In Psycho, Janet Leigh's character was famously killed off after only half an hour. Johansson and Biel don't suffer quite such grisly fates but they are relatively minor players in the story being told here. Hitch's treatment of their characters isn't always fair or wholesome. He likes to peep at Biel's Miles as she undresses in her changing room. He expresses dismay and disbelief that she chose to go off and have children rather than be moulded into the new Grace Kelly by him. Johansson is perturbed by Hitchcock's behaviour during the shooting of the shower scene. (As he demonstrates just how he wants her to be stabbed, he is overtaken by an Ed Gein-like rage of his own.) However, he generally behaves toward her with courtesy and humour. In The Girl, when Hitchcock and Hedren share a car, the director leaps on top of her. Here, Johansson and Hitchcock eat sweets together as she drives him home.

The film-makers have studied their source material. In dutiful fashion, they acknowledge all the most famous incidents during the making of Psycho – everything from the censors' dismay at Hitchcock's decision to show a "scene with a toilet" on screen to the exhaustive lengths that the director went to in order to keep the plot secret. (He ordered his staff to buy up all available copies of Robert Bloch's novel so that no one could read it and made the cast give an oath they wouldn't reveal the ending.) Even so, you don't need to be a fan of Hitchcock to appreciate the film. You can take it as a story of husband and wife at a crossroads in their life who wager their future on their latest enterprise. When the studio turned him down, Hitchcock financed Psycho himself – and put his home at risk in doing so. Although he rarely shows any outward emotion, his drinking and constant snacking hint at the stresses he is under.

Gervasi doesn't disguise Hitchcock's monstrous behaviour: his voyeurism, his bullying, his manipulative behaviour. Nor does he restrain from occasional moments of kitsch and caricature. We see a crow on Hitchcock's shoulder, a knowing reference to a famous publicity shot from The Birds. We also see him in the foyer as Psycho is screening for the first time to an audience, pretending he is the composer/conductor, orchestrating the gasps and screams of the spectators in the audience.

This, though, is only part of the picture. Cheap sensationalism is kept at bay as the film-makers portray Hitchcock as a melancholic, self-doubting figure, peering at the world through his heavily hooded eyes. Hopkins accentuates his gloominess and introspective quality while also showing the decisiveness and wit that made him such a formidable director. It's not a showy performance but it's an immensely effective one.

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