15-28 February 2013; DCA.
Making a biopic about one of the film world’s most well-known and loved directors must be a daunting task. Director Sacha Gervasi should therefore be praised for taking on the story of Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma’s (Helen Mirren) turbulent relationship during the filming of Psycho (1960). The making of Hitchcock’s most famous film therefore provides a backdrop to the telling of the couple’s marital problems, how they resolve them, and the great personal risks they take in financing the picture themselves.
Gervasi and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin’s homage to the master includes its own Hitchcockian moments of suspense, comedy, jealousy and distrust. The film opens with Hitchcock addressing the audience directly, mimicking the iconic, wry introductions to his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962). This is a great start to a film that, unfortunately, will lose its way by trying to be many things at once. On a more positive note, the comedic moments are well placed and show a lighter side to the director that those not familiar with his television work may be unaware of. The few elements of suspense are undertaken with a comedic, yet respectful, touch; these range from Hitchcock sneaking up on the ladies in his life to his contemplating murder with a stick of celery. It is in the moments of jealousy and distrust that Gervasi and McLaughlin show they still have much to learn from their subject matter. The all-too-frequent parallels drawn between Hitchcock and his character Norman Bates, and the appearance of a ghostly Ed Gein, real-life inspiration for Psycho, begin to move the picture into a parody of Hitchcock. While his obsession with leading ladies is well-known, it is unlikely Hitchcock would have gone as far as mimicking Bates by drilling holes in their dressing room walls nor become so obsessed by Gein that he would take advice proffered by his apparition. The film remains on much more solid ground when it goes behind the scenes of Psycho or shows Alfred and Alma handling their personal and profession problems. In fact, the depiction of Alma as a vital part in Hitchcock’s filmmaking is one of the true successes of the film. Again, the casual filmgoer is most likely to be unaware of her involvement in his success; that acknowledgement is long overdue.
Helen Mirren provides a solid, intelligent performance as the woman who deserves as much credit as her husband for the success of his movies. Unfortunately, Anthony Hopkins is not quite as convincing. Despite the heavy prosthetics and exaggerated padding, we all too often simply hear or see the familiar characteristics of the Hopkins’s performance we have come to know so well. This is not helped, perhaps, by the close link between Psycho and Silence of the Lambs (1991). Both films feature a character inspired by Gein, a connection recognised in Hitchcock with the cringe-worthy command “bring these lambs to the slaughter”. While an interesting piece of trivia in itself, such an echo only serves to make the audience wonder if the often presented drink in Hitchcock’s hand is not a nice glass of Chianti. This is a great shame, as Hitchcock does suggest that the master of suspense was a fascinating character.
In spite of its clumsy self-consciousness, Hitchcock has potential and leaves its viewers yearning for more about the great man and his inspiring wife. The scenes that show the couple’s trials and tribulations while making Psycho are compelling; if the focus had only remained on this, Hitchcock would have been a better film for it. Gervasi and McLaughlin are certainly on to something, yet the impact of Hitchcock was to make one reach for the original. I went home and watched Psycho.