It’s always a challenge for an actor to embody a real person—particularly when that real person’s face, voice and mannerisms are well-known. It’s easy to criticize, for example, Lindsay Lohan’s portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor in Lifetime’s Liz & Dick. (Liz didn’t sound anything like that!) It’s slightly harder to nitpick Daniel Day-Lewis’ take on Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln—as long as he’s got the beard and the hat, we’re good. Now iconic British director Alfred Hitchcock gets the biographical movie treatment courtesy of iconic British actor Anthony Hopkins in the appropriately titled Hitchcock.
Hitchcock takes as its storyboard author Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. It is, as Rebello’s title suggests, a more focused biographical treatment looking exclusively at the year 1959. That’s when Hitchcock, well into the later stages of his career, labored to create what would be his masterpiece, the stylish thriller Psycho.
Hopkins plays Hitch as a hangdog, middle-aged artist. His confidence has been shaken by the relative box office failure of 1958’s Vertigo and the thought that, with 45 films to his credit, perhaps his finest work is behind him. He’s buoyed, though, by his stalwart wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). She spent all of her career in Hitchcock’s shadow but was a competent film writer and producer in her own right. When her husband decides to pin his future career on a violent pulp novel by Robert Bloch, Reville has her doubts. Though a red-hot bestseller, Psycho is downright unseemly in ’50s America—what with its themes of incest and serial murder.
Hitchcock, though, is energized by the bloody tale—so much so that he finds himself engaging in imaginary conversations with the film’s real-life inspiration, Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (played by The Crow’s Michael Wincott). It’s a gimmicky device, but it’s fun—a touch of gallows humor that the film’s subject would probably appreciate. Despite his twisted daydreams, Hitch is convinced that Psycho will be a smash. The rest of Hollywood isn’t so sure. Major actors are frightened off. Studios are too scared to pay for it. Ultimately, Hitchcock and his wife bankroll the thing themselves.
Obviously, the making of Psycho was a serious uphill battle. In the end (no real spoiler alert here), it paid off well for the filmmaker. It’s interesting to see some of the behind-the-scenes battles and to learn what a major influence Mrs. Hitchcock was on the old bean. The problem, though, is that Hitchcock—fine a biopic as it is—lacks juicy content. There’s some decent marital friction between Alfred and Alma. Hitch was a legendary lech who fell in love with all of his female stars. Aside from some (perfectly understandable) ogling of his leading lady Janet Leigh (played by the even more pneumatic Scarlett Johansson), this Hitch doesn’t seem to have it in him to be a full-fledged philanderer. By the same token, Reville’s dalliances with a handsome, would-be screenwriter (Danny Huston) don’t amount to much.
What we’re left with is a dutiful recounting of the hard work that went into making what is now regarded as an American classic. Hopkins is wonderful, capturing his subject perfectly without lapsing into caricature. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance. Mirren is similarly topnotch, playing the put-upon wife with strength and verve. It’s an unreserved pleasure to watch two such polished actors enjoy one another’s company. Screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan) and director Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil) manage to sneak in black humor and nice digs at Hollywood. In the end, though, the film is too simple, uncomplicated and, well, fluffy to give us real dirt on either the film industry or Mr. Hitchcock. Unlike its titular subject, this biopic just doesn’t take enough risks. It’s content to play out as a safe, staid and surprisingly cute backstage dramedy about love and imaginary murder.