It was nearly a year ago that a wave of cinematic nostalgia swept over Oscar voters in the form of two films that reminded Old Hollywood what they had been missing. The critical and red carpet success of The Artist and Hugo makes a film like Hitchcock not just possible, but palatable. And with legendary actor Anthony Hopkins inhabiting the legendary director with a passion and excellence we haven’t seen from him since his Hannibal Lecter days, he makes director Sacha Gervasi’s biopic a true holiday treat.
The legend surrounding Alfred Hitchcock is a difficult story to tell because it is many small stories over the course of a long career. Hitchcock’s canon is still one of the most prolific in the business—he worked over three decades as a director and made iconic films in genres ranging from horror to suspense to film noir. So, rather than telling the life story of the man those close to him affectionately called Hitch, the film instead focused on adapting a book by Stephen Rebello about the making of Psycho. The narrowed focus gives us the titular character at a crossroads—he’s considered the best there is, but his own demons (both personal and professional) are gnawing at him, and rather than repeating the successes of the past, he’s determined to strike out on his own and create something truly original.
That originality arrives in the form of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, Psycho, and once Hitchcock gets his hands on it, it’s full steam ahead. The engine powering Gervasi’s otherwise light film into heavier territory is Hopkins, whose performance is the centerpiece, and rightfully so. It is no mean feat to capture both the nuance of a deeply troubled man and the broad scope of a cinematic giant’s gravitas, all while making this generally unlikable antihero someone we can root for despite his subversion of everyone around him. But Hopkins not only pulls it off, he adds layers to someone who had seemed fully realized before. He is both a flawed genius and a perfect fool, able to craft masterful art while his private life crumbles. He takes great risks, and it is clear that both writer and director have great reverence for Hitchcock’s accomplishments, even if some of the finer points are more “based on” than “true story.” There is also their assertion that behind every great man there is a great woman, and Helen Mirren’s portrayal of wife Alma Reville is no mere plus one. If Hopkins is the brains of this venture, she is its heart.
There aren’t many women who can hold their own alongside Anthony Hopkins when he’s at his best. You need look no further than Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson, two well-equipped actresses who become little more than extras orbiting around Hitchcock’s protuberant belly on set. But Mirren imbues Alma with a livelihood that only she (and maybe Meryl Streep) can, turning a fascinating character study into a love story. She roots for her husband to become a better man, and so do we. Her wit and intelligence are more than a match for her husband, and she’s often more efficient than he is—after all, his neuroses come out in little bursts of rage or consumption, while her main problem is him. Both of them stray emotionally, but once the interests of their marriage and his film begin to dovetail, a reunion is all but inevitable. Despite trying to distance himself from everyone around him, Hitchcock needs Alma. She is his muse and monitor, bringing out the best in him while taking him to task for any and all shortcomings.
Unfortunately, outside of those two pillars, there is a lot of unevenness in Hitchcock. Conceits like dreaming about serial killers for inspiration, speaking directly to the audience (as was his wont), and a collection of cute little nods to his other films feel off-putting. Hopkins as Hitchcock would have been more than compelling enough on its own. But all the little tricks range from creepy to annoying, and they end up feeling like extra padding on a man who didn’t really need any. There’s no need to pander to an audience that’s already eating up the material. That said, Hitchcock is still tremendously enjoyable—funny, interesting, and even poignant. Hopkins’ immersion is so complete that it feels like one of the great American storytellers sitting us down for one last tale before he goes.
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Writer: John J. McLaughlin
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson
Release Date: Nov. 23 (limited); Dec. 7, 2013 (wide)