In the past decade there has been a spate of film and TV projects chronicling iconic show business figures and landmarks. It seems as if modern audiences are basking in a warm nostalgic glow, and alongside the endless remakes, sequels and prequels, the biopic has provided that irresistible glimpse into the past. In the past couple of months alone, there have been two, that’s right, two Hitchcock biopics. The Girl, a BBC project starring Toby Jones, pecked at the torrid shoot of The Birds, but this new film documents the precursor, the infamous Psycho.
Anthony Hopkins stars as the rotund, devilish auteur Alfred Hitchcock, heavily made up in prosthetics of course. Sacha Gervasi’s film details the origins of Psycho and how the shoot came to affect his relationship with longtime partner/collaborator Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren. In early 60’s LA, Hitchcock’s magic was beginning to fade with Hollywood producers; they wanted a sleek, commercial hit in the vein of North by Northwest, while a jaded Hitch was keen to spread his wings with a more dangerous project. When the Psycho novel falls into his paunch, he revels in its gruesome depiction of murder and incest.
The studios however, are less impressed, and even Alma has her reservations. Forced to fund it himself, Hitch and Alma put their livelihoods on the line in order to ignite the project. Meanwhile, Alma’s attentions are drawn to the seductive screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), as the two work on his new screenplay. Hitch’s eyes are also straying again to his perennial vice; the buxom blonde lead actress, this time Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson). As the shoot goes on, the couple find themselves edging apart from one another.
Hopkins and Mirren are both excellent; Hopkins showing the same pained restraint as he did so memorably in The Remains of the Day, while injecting the film with a bout of much needed humour. Mirren plays Alma as both headstrong and whipsmart, but also someone quietly affected by Hitch’s weakness for his dream woman. The film as a whole though has something of an identity crisis. It starts off as a fairly gentle, witty domestic charade, then descends into worthy relationship drama, mingling misguided fantasy elements along the way. Ed Gein (the serial killer inspiration for Psycho) appears in a series of hallucinations to Hitch, advising him throughout the film. These intermissions feel unnecessary and only muddy the overall tone.
Hitchcock is an enjoyable romp, but has serious issues with drama and conflict. The film never really delves into why the Psycho shoot was so torturous and the obstacles (MPAA, his infatuation with Leigh, studio execs) are dealt with ease. His relationship with Alma doesn’t manage to ignite the audiences fire either, and it started to remind me of another biopic, Control. Was Ian Curtis’ relationship with his wife the really interesting aspect of the Joy Divison story, or was it simply a convenient thread for the film makers to cling onto? I have similar reservations here, in that Psycho speaks for itself as a striking piece of work. We don’t really need to know the story behind it, and here the film makers never convince us otherwise.