Film review - Jonathan Romney on Hitchcock: Mrs H makes a lunge for the scissors

Anthony Hopkins is fine as the Master, but it’s Helen Mirren who provides the suspense

Fascinated as he was with doubles, Alfred Hitchcock might have been amused to see two dramatised versions of himself turning up in quick succession. The Girl, recently screened on BBC2, depicted the Master of Suspense as a pathetic, sexually predatory figure, victimising the actress Tippi Hedren during the shooting of The Birds. Now a much lighter take on the legend is offered by Hitchcock, written by John J McLaughlin and directed by Sacha Gervasi (who made the priceless heavy metal documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil). Its Hitchcock is still a tormented, and sometimes tormenting character – although, according to an unflappable Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson), "Compared to Orson Welles, he's a sweetheart."

As played by Anthony Hopkins, this film's Hitch is a sweetheart, more or less – cantankerous but ultimately benign. He's bluff and Bunter-ish, with his often misplaced schoolboy humour. Embarking on his taboo-shatteringly grisly Psycho, he invites a group of socialites to afternoon tea, where with immaculate daintiness – "Voi-là!" – he passes round gruesome crime-scene photos ("By the way," he adds, "try the finger sandwiches – they're real fingers").

This is the general tenor of an enjoyable fantasia that's certainly not lacking in wit. Based on Stephen Rebello's book about the making of Psycho, the film shows Hitchcock taking inspiration from – even, after a fashion, finding a spiritual guide in – Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the Wisconsin murderer whose warped filial devotion sparked the creation of Norman Bates, and later revved up many a splatter-film chainsaw.

Gein hovers in Hitchcock's nightmares, even playing his psychoanalyst at one point. A more reliable muse, however, is the director's wife and colleague Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren. In The Girl, Reville was a long-suffering background figure, but Gervasi's film is so much about Alma and her marriage that it could have been called Mrs Hitchcock. The central drama concerns the pain of being the unsung woman behind the great man, and Alma's yearning for independence.

As Alfred prepares Psycho, Alma begins a collaboration with suave writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston at his most purringly raffish), meeting him regularly at a beach house where illicit romance seems to hover in every whiff of sea air. Meanwhile, Alfred lurks at a peephole in the studio wall to spy on his actresses – voyeurism being, apparently, the nearest he gets to sex. Both this film and The Girl smack of red-top gossip, but name a film about real-life movie people that doesn't. Hitchcock is leavened by acute, if sometimes over-emphatic, observations about the role of the auteur in the studio system. Psycho illustrates the paradox that Hollywood needs innovation, yet does all it can to prevent rules being broken. Hitchcock had to stick out his neck (and his wallet) to make Psycho, risking his and Alma's livelihood (or at least, swimming pool).

The film, of course, tips us retrospective winks about film history: we know that Psycho was a masterpiece and a box-office triumph, but at one moment, Hitchcock groans: "What if I'm making a terrible mistake? What if it's another Vertigo?" (you know – Vertigo, recently voted the Greatest Film Ever Made).

In fact Psycho goes horribly wrong – until Mrs H, with her genius for making films work, takes a firm hand. This is very much a revisionist tribute to Reville, who – although she collaborated repeatedly with her husband – was rarely credited. Here, she calls him to account both as a film-maker and as a man. Mirren gives a formidable performance, celebrating Alma's intelligence and thorny dignity. But by casting her, the film also makes Alma an entirely Hollywoodised figure, who only needs a little flattering male attention to become as sleekly vampish as Mirren herself. Rediscovering her sexuality by slipping into a red swimsuit, Alma more closely resembles one of her husband's dream women than the staid-looking Reville ever did.

Among an impressive parade of not-quite-impersonations, one of the best is James D'Arcy's Anthony Perkins, a shy, knock-kneed youth whose avowed admiration of Rope and Strangers on a Train – Hitchcock's queerest films – is a not- so-subtle nudge about the actor's sexuality. Scarlett Johansson's Janet Leigh is briskly pert – pretty much the default Johansson performance – but doesn't begin to suggest the nervous intensity that Leigh brought to Psycho's doomed Marion Crane.

As for Hopkins, who's always been a terrific impersonator (his Tommy Cooper, I swear, is peerless), he makes a very creditable Hitch, although the fat suit and prosthetic make-up reminded me of Catherine Tate's Derek Faye character. Through layers of latex, Hopkins manages to communicate anxiety, vulnerability and rage, although he doesn't get the opportunity to dig that deep in the maestro's psyche. With impish to-camera addresses bookending the film, this Hitch never strays far from the public persona that the director created for himself: the comically solemn statesman of the macabre. Don't expect much darkness or insight. Like the recent Monroe anecdote My Week With Marilyn, Hitchcock is classy, but slight – the upmarket beach-read version of a legend.

Next Week

Jonathan Romney shares Judd Apatow's mid-life crisis in This is 40

Critic’s choice

Eleven-piece folk-rock collective Bellowhead play Oxford New Theatre (Wed); Sheffield City Hall (Thu); Poole Lighthouse (Fri); Warwick Arts Centre (Sat) and Ipswich Regent Theatre (Sun). Meanwhile, increasingly poptastic electro-indie quartet Everything Everything follow their second album Arc with shows at Cambridge Junction (Mon); Birmingham Library (Tue); Heaven, London (Wed); Oxford Academy (Thu) and Sheffield Leadmill (Sat).