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Hitchcock: Hopkins and Mirren rise above a lacklustre biopic

This film image released by Fox Searchlight shows Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, left, Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, center, and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville in "Hitchcock."

Suzanne Tenner/AP

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
John J. McLaughlin
Directed by
Sacha Gervasi
Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren

Hitchcock unspools at that deliciously silly juncture where biography meets fallacy. Translation: Any director who could crank out Psycho must be a crackpot himself. Happily, since this is also a love story perhaps better titled Mrs. Hitchcock, the woman behind the man is there to put Humpty Dumpty Alfie back together again. Their beds may be separate but not their sensibilities. Wife Alma is his partner, his rock and, better yet, a dab hand with a shower scene. No, Hitch, no, the music must stay in – those screeching violins make it sing.

The whole picture is a bit like that, clumsily trying to generate suspense about the master of suspense where, really, none exists. Even the most casual moviegoer knows that Psycho got made and became a fright classic. So an account of the battles en route need to cover more than the familiar ground of inevitable struggles with the myopic studio and rigid censors. To that end, the script shifts from Psycho to psychodrama, trumping up a fight between Hitch and his inner demons. Okay but, as a superb technician, gifted craftsman and very shrewd guy acutely aware of his audience and his brand, the director finished over 50 films, some of them great, in a career that stretched from the silent era through to the late seventies. Those demons may have informed his work (the critters usually do) yet they sure as hell didn't undermine his work. Sorry, no suspense there either.

Nevertheless, we pick up Hitch circa 1960 on the set of his TV show, and do a double take upon seeing that rotund body inhabited by Anthony Hopkins, once again essaying an actual personage. Done Nixon, feigned Picasso, managed C.S. Lewis, Hitchcock should be a breeze, right? Actually, yes – the initial sight is mildly jarring but, with the aid of a stiffened posture and no small application of latex, Hopkins settles into the part quite impressively. Unfortunately, his best line comes early: "Style, my dear, is mere self-plagiarism." Indeed, but it's a truth that the director here – Sacha Gervasi, best known for the doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil – can't finagle his way around. He has the good sense not to steal from his betters, yet lacks the track record to plagiarize himself. It's not hard to guess the result: His style, my dear, is merely absent.

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Anyway, back on the psychic battleground, Hitch is suffering from a late-middle-aged crisis: "I'm too old"; "I lost my touch." To re-summon his creative juices, he needs some raw meat, and what rawer than an adaptation of Psycho, a pulpy novel whose serial killer is loosely based on the real-life exploits of Ed Gein. Alas, in a misguided series of surreal intrusions, damned if Ed himself doesn't pop up to play one of Hitch's personal demons. Once, they even share a couch together, Ego and Id enjoying a Freudian session. Says Id: "You can't just keep this stuff bottled up." Sounds like typecasting to me.

Back on the movie-making sound stage, Hitchcock gathers his famous cast. In Psycho, Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins and Vera Miles were the stars. In Hitchcock, Scarlett Johansson and James D'Arcy and Jessica Biel are bit-playing impersonators, merely a pretty backdrop for the principal love story. Which brings us, finally, to Helen Mirren who, bearing no physical resemblance to the actual Alma, chooses to turn her into a Helen Mirren character– intelligent, quick-witted, sharp-tongued, sexy enough to incite the flirtatious attentions of screenwriter Whitfield Cook and a jealous reaction from her distraught hubby.

So they bicker, they snipe and, for a climax, they escalate to a royal shouting match that lets both performers show off their chops. Essentially, knowing a thing or two about monarchical roles, Mirren portrays Alma as the stalwart Queen at the right hand of Hitch's shaken King. It may be his court but, in this love game, it's her serve. There she invariably is – nodding at a casting choice, polishing the script, making a crucial edit, riding to the rescue when the picture "just sits there, refusing to come alive." Well, calling Doctor Alma. With her, Hitchcock had us jumping from our seats; without her, Hitchcock just sits there.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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