Hypnotic, beautiful, and perilous in equal measure – one needn’t glance anywhere else but at the leading ladies of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to garner their intense influence, yet as dramatized in “Anvil!” director Sacha Gervasi’s loving biopic, “Hitchcock,” the real authority lingered off the set at home, shielding her husband quietly from failure and ruin. What follows is a peek behind the curtain on Hitchcock’s marriage to Alma Reville (the couple played by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren), while charting their pangs of jealousy and pressure during the turbulent making of “Psycho.” Based on Stephen Rebello’s book, “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” the source material proves there’s indeed a compelling story to be told here, but while Gervasi’s comedy-drama presses charmingly on this period in Hitchcock’s career, the film ultimately collapses under its own lightweight intentions of tribute turned romance.
For a man so indebted to withdrawn calculation and economy, Gervasi’s film drops in on the Master of Suspense when he is perhaps at his most reckless. It is 1959, and “North by Northwest” has just premiered to fantastic notices, leaving Hitch and Alma to restlessly celebrate in their gardens and swimming pool at home. Despite many offers from keen writers – including the smarmy pitches of Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who keeps a begging eye on Alma – a follow-up project remains elusive to Hitch, at least until he picks up “Psycho,” and the decision is instantly made. However, it isn’t long before doubts begin to gnaw at Hitch, Alma, and their circle of friends and co-workers (including Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Hitch’s assistant, Peggy Robertson (Toni Collette)), and it soon becomes clear that between Hitchcock’s marriage and upcoming production, one of them is liable to implode unless serious sacrifices are made.
From the violent, jarring opening — in which a flashback to one of Ed Gein’s (Michael Wincott) “Psycho”-inspiring farmhouse murders is narrated directly to camera by Hitchcock — a firmly tongue-in-cheek tone is set that continues straight through to the film’s end. It’s a bold move for Gervasi, essentially filtering a piece of film history fraught with dense analysis through a slapstick comedy lens, fading a jaunty Danny Elfman score and sound effects high into the mix as punctuation as well as crisp, bright, and clean cinematography by DP Jeff Cronenweth throughout. Nail-biting suspense is clearly not the aim here by screenwriter John McLaughlin, and that is expressed wholeheartedly in Hopkins’ broad performance, his lips curled into circular peaks, eyes round and frozen to a stare. Touching masterfully on Gervasi’s intended direction, Hopkins also tackles Hitchcock’s speech and every syllable like tar, and in the process wrings some fine laughs out of the smallest drawn out pronunciation.
Meanwhile, even as Hopkins plods around in heavy makeup (which, after the concurrently self-conscious and sincere skin-swapping of “Cloud Atlas,” maintains a conventional excellence) it is rather Mirren as Alma who lends any weight to the central dynamic whatsoever. Effortlessly conveying the pull between her husband’s all-encompassing duties and her own sexual and creative impulses, she also gets away with the film’s most egregious Oscar-bait monologue triumphantly, even if the schmaltzy reality of her words hits the audience immediately afterwards. Interestingly, Gervasi occasionally eschews this straightforward approach, as he returns again to Ed Gein as a surreal mentor and muse to Hitchcock, finding within their relationship the parallels of over-involved fantasy and violent tendencies. Again, the dynamic is roughly sketched at best, but the jolting descents into Hitch’s subconscious possess an interesting interpretation of the man that fails to show up elsewhere.
And while there are many relationships and aspects of Hitchcock’s life that provoke cinephilic glee, like his mid-production bickering with Peggy and Saul Bass (Wallace Langham), or the fevered arguments with Paramount over budget, Gervasi continually employs the hindsight method of historical storytelling; namely, using the audience’s present knowledge to telegraph a knowing chuckle from a character’s clueless perspective. The allusions are endless (Bernard Herrmann’s score was a great addition, after all!), and while they occasionally produce a clever line or character beat, the result adds up mostly to an arid sense of smug reference. This approach courses through the entire first half, and leads to essentially the most initially intriguing, and likewise most disappointing aspect of the film: the production of “Psycho” itself. Documented and scrutinized to within a inch of its life already, Gervasi nonetheless takes a Cliff Notes version to the entire endeavor, while in the process failing to establish any matter of dramatic tension or spectacle as well. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel, as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles respectively, are essentially rendered non-entities, only placed in the narrative to emphasize Hitchcock’s sides of misogyny and kindness briefly before letting it wash away just as quickly.
That feeling of utter disposability pervades throughout the film, underlining the missteps of Gervasi by aiming for breezy entertainment while forgetting to pause and inject some genuine emotion in there as well. Mirren and Hopkins provide some fine chemistry together, but altogether the narrative around them remains so bereft of compelling drama or characters that, despite the well-known couple’s marital history, its ending is still assured from frame one. Paired down to what feels like a Universal studio tour of the auteur’s life, “Hitchcock” calls back to his early assessment of potential book adaptations as “sleeping pills with dust jackets,” while Sacha Gervasi’s unfulfilling biopic remains content to be a Valium between film canisters. [C]