Biopics of recent figures, especially celebrities or people of notable fame, tend to fall into one of two camps. There are those that attempt to encompass the whole life, bullet-pointing the key moments, fretfully hoping to build a strong narrative out of the patchy weave of genuine circumstances. Then there are those that narrow their gaze, pick a prominent event, and embellish it for all their worth. From the tone already in place here you might’ve gathered that I generally find neither particularly successful. The biopic is in many ways mainstream cinema’s toughest challenge. Can you pay reverence and construct a satisfying piece of art at the same time?
It’s a question even more pertinent when considering Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, a film which takes the intimidating life’s work of The Master Of Suspense and focuses in on the creation of 1960’s Psycho. Gervasi’s film is justifiably enthralled with Hitch (“hold the cock”) as much as it is with the genre-moulding slasher he created, but is there any value or insight here that couldn’t be gleamed from a 15 minute DVD special feature? Clearly Gervasi, whose previous directorial work was in documentary (the celebrated Anvil: The Story Of Anvil), is enthralled with his subject matter. Fair enough. I’d advocate enjoying your interests as much as the next person. But deferring the opportunity to make your own artistic statement in order to revere someone else’s? This isn’t the film I’d choose to make.
Still, here it is, and what to make of it? Gervasi’s approach has been to entertain as much as to inform and reconstruct. As such, Hitchcock is easy viewing. Colour floods the screen at every opportunity. The picture is ravishingly warm, evoking much of the glamorous excesses of Hollywood and its surrounding boulevards at the end of the pretty 50’s. We’re in a world of swimming pools and fine automobiles, beach houses and studio sound stages. Affluence abounds.
It begins with the warm reception to North By Northwest and Hitchcock’s eagerness to defy those who suspect him of being over the hill. His wife Alma (Helen Mirren, upstaging everyone as always) is keen for him to look at the galleys of a novel by her good friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), but Hitch is far more intrigued by a pulpy novel based upon the gaudy serial murders of Ed Gein. The studios and censors are less enthralled, but Hitch is determined and so self-finances the production.
That’s nearly all there is to Hitchcock. From here on its process; screenwriting is covered in literally two minutes, then casting, shooting and finally post-production. In order to flesh this out into a fully-fledged drama instead of merely a technical reconstruction, Gervasi’s movie also takes time to consider the marital side of things. Alma’s attention is diverted to helping Cook adapt his novel for the screen. The knock-on effect being that Hitch’s attention is diverted to his wife’s distraction. Could Psycho cost him his marriage as well as his reputation?
I’m not a Hitchcock aficionado. I’ve seen Psycho only once, and only the most famous of his other key films. I’m not equipped to say which events here are based completely in fact and which have been massaged for dramatic effect, however the whole thing feels embellished. But then, at the same time, not particularly ambitious. Gervasi keeps the movie ticking over at a safe, unhurried 30 mph. Even when he reaches for melodrama, the most overwrought Hitchcock gets is Mirren raising her voice further than Hopkins can raise his eyebrows. This is Sunday afternoon entertainment. It doesn’t ask much of the audience.
Sadly, it doesn’t particularly give anything in return. The performances are largely all fine. Alfred Hitchcock himself is portrayed here by another icon, Anthony Hopkins. It’s a real casting coup, as for such a presence – padded or not – you need someone able to command the screen. Hopkins for the most part does the job well, however it can drift into jolly impersonation over a display of venerated craft. A romanticised version of the man, if you will. Hopkins’ own persona can’t help but push through on occasion. A moment of anger at a poolside evokes an improbably bloated and frustrated Dr Hannibal Lecter.
Hopkins and Mirren are at their best when sparring with one another, whilst credible support is given by the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg, Scarlett Johansson and Toni Colette. Only Danny Huston seems to be really phoning it in, seemingly as disinterested in Whitfield Cook as the audience is supposed to be. And whilst the film’s canvas may be vibrantly coloured, Gervasi tends to leave it at that. Hitchcock shows little of the technical flare of its subject.
The film is punctuated by scenes in which a troubled Hitch talks with the spirit of Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott). It’s an interesting notion, and there are moments here when it evokes more in-depth questions about the responsibility of the filmmaker, not to mention the possible parallels between the act of violence and it’s depiction… but Hitchcock veers away from fully looking into the abyss. It peeps over the edge before backing away. As such these scenes just feel odd and out of place. A teetering step into less easily digestible territory.
But as such they’re really the only bum notes here. Trouble is there’s not a whole lot to whole-heartedly sing about either, save for a lovely little flourish toward then end where Hitch conducts an audience to the tune of his own infamous shower scene. Hitchcock will fill 98 minutes of your life quite pleasantly without leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. Neither will you dwell on it much afterwards, and there’s nothing here to suggest a second viewing would be required.
It has, however, prompted in me a desire to see the real Psycho again. And if that was the aim, then the film is a success.