Anthony Hopkins gave some amazing performances in the 1980s and 1990s, but for the last decade or so it’s seemed like he’s simply turned up for his paycheque. However it turns that to get him to give a real performance you’ve got to give him a role where he doesn’t have much choice but to act. After all, Alfred Hitchcock is far too well known for Hopkins just to have coasted it. Thankfully he doesn’t, not just doing a dead-on impersonations of the master director, but creating a fully realised character in a way Toby Jones couldn’t quite manage in the recent, The Girl.
Rather than being a birth-to-death biopic, Hitchcock concentrates solely on the period around the making of Psycho. It opens just as North By Northwest is hitting cinemas; a movie that proves a commercial hit but has critics saying Hitch is playing it safe and simply going through the motions. For his follow-up he wants to do something different and sets out to find something unusual, eventually settling on Robert Block’s novel, Psycho.
Everyone around him thinks the idea of Hitchcock making a horror film is a terrible idea – it’s simply not something someone of his stature does. He’s determined though, but it proves difficult, with Paramount balking at paying for the production. As a result Hitch funds it himself, which means that is Psycho fails, he’ll be ruined both financially and professionally.
As production starts to gear up, Hitch begins to get paranoid about his wife Alma’s (Helen Mirren) friendship with writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), leading to a growing jealousy that somewhat mirrors the obsessions of Psycho. Alma meanwhile has plenty to put up with herself, not least the fact that as with every one of Hitch’s films, she knows he will start to fall for his leading lady (even if she’s aware it’s unlikely to result in an actual affair).
Hitchcock is certainly an entertaining movie about the making of a film that’s as interesting for what happened behind the scenes as the thrills and spills on-screen. However it is slightly stuck between a rock and a hard place. As it’s based on just a small chunk of Hitch’s life, it needs to provide enough info to ensure that those who don’t know much about him won’t get lost, but that results in a slight fudging of the truth of what actually happened during the making of Psycho.
The alterations are partly to make things fit better into the plot of a film but it does mean that fans of the master might get slightly annoyed that the truth sometimes gets altered, especially as it misses out some of the more interesting aspects (which admittedly would have been difficult to fit within a film).
Rather than sticking with being 100% factual about the period just before Psycho’s 1960 release, it instead wants to suggest broader truths about Hitch. The film never quite gets to grips with why Hitch is so obsessed with young blonde women (but then, there have been thousands of suggestions over the years and never a definitive answer), but you really can feel what Psycho meant to him. At the time he was 60 and the most famous director in the world, but many felt he was past his prime and coasting. Psycho saw him completely paring things back and doing something daring and different – something he’d been renowned for in his prime – and showing the world he was still a truly great director.
Unfortunately I wasn’t convinced by the attempts to make the movie a bit of a thriller in itself, with Hitch talking to the long-dead Ed Gein (the murderer who inspired Psycho) about the obsessions rising within him and his increasingly dark conviction that his wife his having an affair. The idea of the affair works thematically, but the aim of making the movie itself Hitchcockian is better in theory than in practice.
However, where the movie undoubtedly works is bringing Hitch’s wife, Alma Reville, out of the shadows and putting her into her rightful position as a vital part of Hitchcock’s success. It’s easily arguable that Hitch would never have attained the status he did without her. She helped rewrite his scripts, worked with him on the extensive shot-by-shot storyboarding he did, and was his sounding board for virtually everything he did. While the film doesn’t go too far into the nuts and bolt of how Hitchcock put together a movie (which is a shame, but I presume they were worried it would bore the audience), it certainly shows how important Alma was, even if she never got the recognition in her lifetime.
It helps a lot that both Mirren and Hopkins give great performances and it’s a great shame Helen didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, as she’s terrific. Hopkins has really studied Hitch, even mimicking the director’s slightly stilted style of delivery direct to camera in sections based on Hitch’s intros to his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The two actors are the heart and soul of this movie, helping to patch over some of its flaws.
The likes of Scarlet Johansson (as Janet Leigh), James D’Arcy (as Anthony Perkins) and Danny Huston are also pretty good, although their roles don’t really ask them to stretch themselves too far. However Jessica Biel is surprisingly good as Vera Miles, an actress Hitch once planned to make a big star but who was sidelined after she got pregnant. Biel takes a small part and gives it far more depth that it might otherwise have had. It’s more evidence for my pet theory that Biel is actually a really good actress who normally takes rubbish roles.
If you were hoping for a bit of gay interest with James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, while the actors sexuality is mentioned it’s little more than a sidenote. It’s mentioned how Perkins is a good match to play Norman Bates as he’s known for his boy next door image but is hiding a secret life, but that’s about it.
Hitchcock is certainly not a perfect movie, but it’s definitely an interesting one. To be honest it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts, which are undoubtedly interesting, rather than trying to be a little too clever for its own good with the Hitchcockian elements. Even so it’s definitely worth a look, especially if you’re a film fan.
Overall Verdict: A flawed but extremely well-acted biopic that provides an interesting if not 100% factually true account of the making of a classic.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac