Hitchcock is certainly a film about a Hitchcock, but which one? Is it the famous director, Alfred (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit, prosthetic and an extensive makeup job)? Or is it perhaps about his wife, the woman behind the master of suspense, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren)? I’m leaning toward the latter, given that she comes away as the most celebrated figure in the film, more so than Alfred and even more than the film that is being made during its events, Psycho. Yes, this is a film that takes place during the events leading up to, during, and directly following Psycho, perhaps the most well-known of Hitchcock’s films.
It is apparently not the best, with a recent poll placing his Vertigo as the best film of all time. But it is the one that comes to mind quickest whenever someone mentions the director. It makes sense to set a film around its creation, the challenges that were involved, and so on. What it comes across as is largely a DVD extra that could be titled “The Making of Psycho: A Dramatic Retelling.” Perhaps it will be bundled with future home video releases.
The opening and concluding scenes play out like an episode from Hitchcock‘s television show, eerily put together. Anthony Hopkins does not stand before us, introducing us to the tale we’re about to witness; it is Hitchcock, having risen from the dead, to host a movie about a select portion of his life. The makeup and costume job on Hopkins is phenomenal. He becomes the famous director, and will continue to do so for the rest of the film. If impersonations win Oscar nominations, Hopkins will have another one with this film.
Hitchcock does not portray its lead as a hero, or even as a terribly good man. He’s out of shape, he drinks way too much, and he’s lustful. The blondes he casts in his movies are fantasies to him, despite his marriage. We are captivated by him regardless. Not the film around him, but he, as a person, can make anything fascinating. This imperfect being created movies that wowed audience for decades, and he’s here, on-screen, giving us a look into how his most famous work was created. There’s something astonishing about this, even if it’s not really Hitchcock doing it; it feels like him because of Hopkins’ performance.
The film deals with both Psycho‘s creation and the tumultuous relationship between Alfred and Alma. Alma is the type of wife who takes care of her husband at all turns, but also wants to do something fun for herself. When another man, a writer named Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) comes along and gives her that chance, Alfred gets jealous and suspicious.
Alma, on the other hand, is just looking to have some fun. She gets a monologue late in the picture about how controlling Alfred is, and how she is his most loyal fan. Wouldn’t you know it, she winds up saving Psycho. She is the true hero of our story. The film turns on a dime after this monologue, with the rest of the film taking a much lighter tone, and shining a light on Alma at every chance. Prior to it, it uneasily moves from darkness to comedy. It didn’t know what to do with each scene.
That’s kind of the problem here, isn’t it? You go to see a movie about Hitchcock and you’re almost expecting allusions and homages to his various works. Trying to bring those across, keeping in typical Hitchcock style, while also telling a relatively lighthearted drama leads to a lot of clashing, and the result is a mess. It simply doesn’t quite work until it stops trying to mimic the man it’s representing. There are even scenes where Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) appears as Hitchcock’s hallucinations and dreams, representing his potential to do harm, that shift things further into the dark.
Not that anything’s ever done with those scenes. The “evil” side rarely comes up, and when it does it’s played off as comedy. The film is uneven and is never as sure of itself as it would like to be. It’ll play out a scene, and then almost turn to the audience and go “… right?” as if it wants our approval. Hitchcock is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-book about the making of Psycho; it should know what it wants to do and just go about doing that.
It’s still worth watching, if only to see the transformation that Anthony Hopkins goes through in order to play the lead. He doesn’t look exactly like Hitchcock, but it’s certainly close enough to fool most people. And because his mannerisms are all so perfect, the slight parts of his face that aren’t exact soon don’t matter. Helen Mirren is also quite good as the under appreciated wife, although since Alma was not in the public eye as much, it’s harder to judge whether she was a good representation of the real thing.
Hitchcock is a valiant effort but ultimately nothing more than a dramatic representation of what you’d find on a Psycho DVD. Anthony Hopkins is superb, really making you feel like Hitchcock has returned from the grave, and Helen Mirren gives the more emotional of the two performances, but the film surrounding them is tonal inconsistent and constantly awaiting our approval, as if it’s never sure about what it’s portraying. It’s funny at times, and kind of scary at others, but it only hits its stride in the last 20 minutes or so, with the parts leading up to that feeling like something is off. It’s admirable, and I think it’s worth seeing, but maybe as a supplement after watching Psycho again.