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Friday, April 5, 2013

Hitchcock

Man, am I ever going to get this blog back on track...

Anyway, I think it's pretty fitting that I am reviewing a film about a great filmmaker the day after a great film critic died. I'm not going to try and do justice to the great Roger Ebert, a brilliant film critic and writer in general, as well as seemingly a pretty top-notch guy - I will leave that to those far more qualified than I - but I couldn't not mention the passing of so a giant a presence within my chosen (semi?) professional field. 

This review is also up at Channel 24.


What it's about

As famed director Alfred Hitchcock tries to put together what was surely his most controversial film to date, the true-life horror of Psycho, his marriage to his long-suffering wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, reaches a crucial turning point.

What we thought

Hitchcock is a classic example of a film that has Oscar contender written all over it, but doesn't quite have what it takes to make it into that lauded awards ceremony or, indeed, simply didn't have the right backing for what is, after all, at its most cynical, a popularity contest. Which is why, incidentally, it's being released on these shores so long after its American release date. To be entirely fair though, it isn't really artful enough to truly rank as one of the year's best films.

It has some questionable prosthetics, little in the way of substance and subtext and a few of its storytelling choices don't entirely ring true. In particular, throughout the filming of Psycho Alfred Hitchcock is shown to be interacting with the “ghost”, so to speak, of Ed Gien, the murderous, incestuous psycho on which his film is based and, regardless of whether or not Hitchcock actually did have these “daydreams”, these sequences come across as clumsy attempts to get into the mind of the Great Director or, simply, as information dumps.

All this said, though, view Hitchcock less as a Great Film and more as a piece of light entertainment and it suddenly starts to look a whole lot more attractive. Honestly, while it's clear that the film's distributors saw it as a major awards contender and have marketed it as such, the impression one gets from the film itself is that its filmmakers – director Sacha Gervasi and screenwriter John J McLaughlin – were far more interested in making a terrifically enjoyable crowd-pleaser than in anything more serious. And if that was their intention then they succeeded splendidly.

At the outset, Hitchcock may look like the sort of film made by film fans for film fans and no one else, but Gervasi has wisely cast his net far beyond just his core, cine-literate audience. The sections of the film that deal with the behind-the-scenes moments are zippy and staged in such a way that they play out as a triumph-over-adversary story. The climax of the film, in which Psycho is finally shown to an audience is simply a wonderful moment that mixes air-punching, “Hell Yeah!” triumph with a moving celebration of the power that cinema has on its “civilian” audiences.

Interlaced with and informing all this though, is a simple relationship drama between Hitchcock and his wife. Indeed, for all that the film is called Hitchcock, it might as well have been called Reville, so large a part does she play in the film. Many have, in fact, complained that far too much time is spent on her and her relationship both with Hitch (everyone calls him Hitch, apparently) himself and Whitfield Cook - a Hitch-wannabe, writing a Hitchcock-esque script - for whom she is offering her considerable help as a script-doctor. These people are demonstrably nuts. Not only does it make for a great angle from which to examine so larger-than-life a figure as Alfred Hitchcock, but she's played by the never less than brilliant Helen Mirren in typically wonderful, tough, warm, funny form. If you cast Helen Mirren in your film, you make damn sure that you get as much out of her as you possible can.

Ironically, the real problem here is Hitch himself. Now, I may be a fairly big fan of the man's work but I am not too familiar with him as a person so I certainly have no complaints about the accuracy of this portrayal. Aside for the afore-mentioned tricky device of having Hitch constantly conversing with Ed Gien, it's a fairly well-written, well-rounded bit of characterization that portrays him as a typical Great Man: confident, brilliant, eccentric, wildly insecure and, of course, not that great with long-term relationships. Here, this is compounded further by his obsession with perfect “Hitchcock Blondes” - in this case, by Scarlett Johannson who is simply perfect as “scream queen” Janet Leigh - that he frequently casts in his movies, but don't really exist in reality.

Nope, the real problem here is that someone apparently didn't have faith in the great Anthony Hopkins to do the role justice – which he does, unsurprisingly – so they heap layers upon layers of prosthetics onto him. The intention, presumably, was to have Hopkins look more like the real-life Alfred Hitchcock, but he ends up looking barely human. Hitchcock had a very particular look about him and it was pointless to try and replicate it. They should have simply relied on the audience's willing suspension of disbelief and on Hopkins' natural skills. Instead we get a fluffy but tremendously enjoyable, funny, engaging and moving (semi-) bio-pic that is only really hurt by an extremely distracting central presence. 




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