Anthony Hopkins goes virtually unrecognizable in the biopic Hitchock, which revolves around the relationship between the acclaimed director and his wife and business partner Alma Reville. Focusing on the time when Hitchcock was filming "Psycho," this biopic begins with a knowing wink as the director addresses the audience much like he did during his popular "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV series. In this sequence, he comments on the infamous Ed Gein murders, which are seen in in a reenactment. (Incidentally Gein was the inspiration for not only "Psycho," but "Silence of the Lambs" which won Hopkins an Oscar.)
Cut to the premiere of Hitchcock’s hugely successful "North by Northwest," a glossy spy melodrama that audiences had come to expect from him. Not wanting to follow-up with something similar, he seeks a project that would be completely different. And believes he finds it when he sees an article on "Psycho," Robert Bloch’s novel about a serial killer that was influenced by Gein’s crimes. He immediately buys all the existing copies of the novel to insure that the film’s twist ending remain a mystery. His only obstacle is Paramount Pictures, which is wary to finance a project as sensational as this one promises to be. (The story features gory murders, transvestitism and a heroine killed off in the first half-hour.) When the studio balks, Hitchcock finances it himself (mortgaging his home to raise the capital) and sets out to find a writer and a cast.
All the while, Alma (Helen Mirren) stays faithfully by his side offering support and guidance while trying to forge her career as a screenwriter. The problem is that she is co-adapting the work of a tepidly talented author Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who is clearly interested in more than a business relationship. This isn’t lost on Hitchcock and the idea of losing his wife puts him into an emotional spiral (bringing to mind Jimmy Stewart’s experiences in "Vertigo").
Nothing, though, in the more modest "Hitchcock" resembles the emotional turmoil seen in that classic (recently picked by Sight and Sound magazine as the greatest film ever made). As directed by Sacha Gervasi, the film is pleasant and swift-paced, full of fun facts and enjoyable performances by all of the main players. These include Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, Toni Collette as Hitch’s assistant Peggy Robertson, and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles - with whom Hitch had a not-so-pleasant working relationship.
When it opens, the film feels quirky, as if directed by Tim Burton (that may be because the film’s score was composed by Burton’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman). Once it gets moving, however, the film seems a bit more conventional, winding up feeling like an HBO Film Event. Ironically HBO has its own Hitchcock biopic in rotation: "The Girl" - about the making of "The Birds," the film that followed "Psycho" that is alluded at the end of "Hitchcock" with a visual joke.
While the film, adapted by John H. McLaughlin ("Black Swan") from Stephen Rebello’s "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," sports a number of interesting tidbits about the making of the film (and about Hitchcock himself), it plays a bit too on the surface. "Hitchcock" winds up being more of a curiosity than a deep study of the Master of Suspense.
Performances are top-notch with Hopkins virtually disappearing into the role with the use of prosthetics to make him more jowly and obese. While the makeup is extremely effective in close-ups, other scenes look like the make-up crew had to do a rush job. But that’s a minor quibble when Hopkins delivers a delicious showcase for his acting chops. Mirren is both strong and vulnerable as Alma giving us a portrait of a woman who stood by her man even though credit for his success was partly due to her own business savvy. Johansson as Leigh is particularly winsome, changing her gait and mannerisms to reflect not only the actress herself, but that of the era itself.
While it does seem a bit TV movie-like, "Hitchcock" is thoroughly entertaining, filled with humor and charm. And gives film buffs more than enough anecdotes to get excited about. Sure, this isn’t a groundbreaking look into the mind of a genius filmmaker, but it’s an easy and entertaining way to spend 98 minutes of your time.