Friday, January 11, 2013

New in Theaters: Hitchcock

Directed by Sacha Gervasi

The Grade: B+

While Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho certainly has many attributes—really, entire books have been written on the subject—the greatest is undoubtedly the sleight of hand trick the film pulls on the audience of making us think the film is about one character, when really, it’s about someone else. How appropriate then, that Hitchcock, a film ostensibly about the making of Psycho, is actually about something else entirely?

Hitchcock begins with the director searching for his next project and ends with the Psycho premiere, and in between is certainly a lot of history and dramatization of the circumstances that molded Psycho into the great film it became, but none of that is really what Hitchcock is about. Hitchcock is the story of a marriage reaching a potential breaking point, yet finding the strength not to break. And it’s a damn good one.

A few years ago, I believe in a review of The Kids Are All Right, a writer (sadly I can’t recall who) mentioned how sad it is that most films treat a couple’s journey to the altar as the pinnacle of the relationship, and that there’s apparently no narrative value in anything that happens after that moment. Hitchcock begs to differ. With Anthony Hopkins playing the eponymous director and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville, their marriage is portrayed as a wonderfully complex, organic, loving, and incorrigible thing. And that makes sense, given that in his role as a director, Hitchcock spent his “work” hours making millions of people fall in love with beautiful women, and then watch horrible things happen to them. It can’t be easy being married to someone like that, especially if you’re an intimately involved creative collaborator, like Reville absolutely was.

The plot of the film is pretty basic and mirrors every story you’ve ever heard about great works of art: Hitchcock wants to make Psycho, the studio doesn’t think it will be good and doesn’t want to finance it, Hitchcock finances it himself but now feels the pressure to make it great lest he go belly-up, then lo and behold, a masterpiece is created. But from this paint by numbers outline, the real film emerges, and that’s the film about a marriage being torn at its seams by ambition, pressure, temptation, and pride.

The film is cast with name actors even down to minor roles (Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, Danny Huston, and Toni Collette, among others), and they all do a good job, but Hopkins and Mirren are really the stars of the show here. Both give spectacular performances, though wildly different ones. With Hopkins, it’s all about how well he embodies Hitch (and the answer is, quite well), but with Mirren, it’s more about how she embodies an idea. Mirren plays the good wife that’s slipping away, who wants both to be saved and let go in near equal measure. Mirren creates a fascinatingly complex character, and by the time the film ends, it’s her you want to spend more time with, not Hitch (“Hold the cock,” as he says in the film when someone uses his full last name).

Hitchcock was directed by Sacha Gervasi, whose only previous film was the absolutely hilarious documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil. With both films, Gervasi has demonstrated an ability to find the hidden story about a subject we thought we already knew, and to show how much mere entertainers wrestle with inside their heads. It’s rare to get films that succeed well on more than one level, and Hitchcock does. As film history, it’s entertaining and informative. But as the story of a marriage between two strong-willed people, it’s even better. And that’s a twist of dynamic that even Hitch himself would have appreciated.

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