Before getting down to pros and cons of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, let’s spare a moment of sympathy for Toby Jones. Pushing ten years ago, the veteran character actor got what seemed like a plum role that also had the benefit of being especially well-suited to him: Truman Capote, in a film depicting the genesis of the classic book In Cold Blood. Unfortunately for Jones, it just so happened to coincide with Philip Seymour Hoffman also being cast as the colorful author in a completely different film recounting that stretch of his life. Hoffman, of course, gave one of his very best performances that earned a gaggle of awards, including the Best Actor Oscar. Jones’s film became an afterthought, released to indifference around a year later. He went back to the trenches, toiling away in supporting roles, finally landing another juicy lead, this time playing Alfred Hitchcock in a HBO film depicting the production of The Birds, with a particular focus on the famed director’s notorious obsession with star Tippi Hedren. The resulting film, The Girl, was middling, but Jones acquitted himself nicely as the Master of Suspense (though he was surprisingly outacted by Sienna Miller as Hedren), only to be entirely overshadowed mere weeks later when an actor who already has an Academy Award on his shelf plays Hitchcock in a big screen offering which also focuses on the production of a single film a key to unlocking the man’s life.
It is Anthony Hopkins taking on the role of Hitchcock in the film that bears the director’s name, and it is the most engaged the actor has been in ages. Though he’s undermined somewhat by makeup work of varying quality, Hopkins effectively burrows into the passion and focus of Hitchcock during the run-to and making of the 1960 classic Psycho. Though Hopkins is a marvelous mimic, he mostly adopts Hitchcock’s droll, drawling cadence rather than attempts a full-on impression, but the pressure of playing a well-known figure still forces the actor to eschew some of his more well-worn habits–a reliance on the contrasts of loud and soft, a tendency to play each character as distracted by the drifting mists of life–which serves the performance well. It forces him to be inventive, to be probing. He properly finds and conveys the mixture of artistic nervousness and seasoned confidence that makes Hitchcock, particularly at this point in his career, so compelling.
Hopkins may also have been spurred on by having to match up against Helen Mirren, his most formidable costar in quite some time. Compounding her authority is the fact that she’s playing Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, in a story that is asserting, as much as anything else, the woman’s often neglected contributions to cinema. She was known (and yet simultaneously often dismissed) as a confidante and guide to Hitchcock, using her own considerable cinematic skill and knowledge (she has screenwriting credits dating back to 1927, just a few years after Hitchcock got his start). Mirren is her usual forceful self, demuring not one bit to the men around her. Just as Hitchcock found strength in his partnership with Reville, Hopkins clearly raises his game in the company of Mirren.
The film around these two actors is imperfect but entertaining, sparking to life most when it is immersed in the mechanics of making a film happen, a miniature miracle every time, even for someone with the clout of Hitchcock. Gervasi is at his best when concocting a clever way to introduce the filming of the renowned shower scene or depicting Hitchcock standing outside an early screening of Psycho, literally conducting the audience as they react to what’s unfolding before them in projections of flickering light (the latter inspired flourish apparently the result on an on-set improvisation by Hopkins). When Gervasi opts for storytelling tactics that hint at less confidence in the base material–most notably recurring scenes that have Hitchcock imagining interactions with Ed Gein, the Wisconsin madman who was the inspiration for Norman Bates–the wheels get a little wobblier. Hitchcock knew the movies were magic. If only Gervasi similarly understood that sometimes a lot of extra distractions aren’t required when delving deeper. Sometimes the sharing of the secrets of the trick can be enough all on its own.